Today I interview historian Richard Carrier about historical method and Jesus of Nazareth.
An important followup to the content of this interview is here.
Download CPBD episode 083 with Richard Carrier. Total time is 1:07:01.
Richard Carrier links:
- Richard’s home page
- Richard’s blog
- Sense & Goodness Without God
- Not the Impossible Faith
- How to support Richard’s research
Links for things we discussed:
- Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man
- Robert Eisenmann
- The Empty Tomb
- Statement against interest
- Bayes’ Theorem + a tutorial
- Carrier’s upcoming books: Bayes’ Theorem and Historical Method and On the Historicity of Jesus Christ
- Siegfried, “Odds Are, It’s Wrong: Science fails to face the shortcomings of statistics” (also see Diamond & Kaul, “Prior convictionsbayesian approaches to the analysis and interpretation of clinical megatrials”)
- Two sources on Bayesian methods in archaeology: Bayesian Approach to Interpreting Archaeological Data and “Empirical Bayesian Methods for Archaeological Survey Data: An Application from the Mesa Verde Region”.
- “The Descent of Inanna” and “The Ascension of Isaiah“
- Jaynes, Probability Theory: The Logic of Science
- Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Literacy and its Consequences
- Huff & Geis, How to Lie with Statistics
- Collins, “The Teleological Argument“
- Ikeda & Jeffreys, “The Anthropic Principle Does Not Support Supernaturalism“
- Sober, “The Design Argument“
- Thomas Bayes
- Hume, “Of Miracles“
- Richard Cox
- McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions
- McGrew & McGrew article on the resurrection
- The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails
- Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle
- Josephus on Jesus
- G.A. Wells
- Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament
LUKE: Alright. Today I’m speaking with Dr. Richard Carrier and we’re going to talk about his upcoming books on historical method and the resurrection of Jesus. Richard, welcome back to the show.
RICHARD: Glad to be here. Always a joy.
LUKE: So, Richard, you’ve got this two volume work coming out. The first volume is “Bayes Theorem And Historical Method,” correct?
LUKE: The second one is something on Jesus?
RICHARD: The second one will be the title I was originally going to have for the full set which is “On The Historicity Of Jesus Christ”.
RICHARD: That’s what it will be on… It will just be addressing that question right head on. The first one does have a subtitle which is like, what the hell is Bayes’ Theorem and historical method have to do with Jesus? But it’s “Bayes’ Theorem And The Historical Method: The Failure Of Historicity Criteria In The Study Of Jesus”. What I did was, as I was working this out I realized if… The biggest problem with making this book on the historicity of Jesus Christ is cutting material.
There are so many questions and arguments and evidence to present that there’s just no way to do it in a book that anyone’s going to read. To illustrate this, is if you look at Earl Doherty’s two books. You remember The Jesus Puzzle?
Nice short book, pretty good, a few flaws but other wise a good work on the historicity of Jesus on the opposite side of it. Then he came out with his new version which is the “Jesus Neither A God Nor Man”. Which is this gigantic 800 page tome that I’m sure will terrify anyone who even sees the book and would be very hard to get through.
It reminds me of some of the other works of Jesus scholars. Like Eisenman’s books for example, just look terrifying huge and dense words and everything. I didn’t want to do that but I didn’t want to cut so much material that people could say, “Well, you didn’t cover this or you didn’t cover that.”
So, as I was going through and completing the book I realized I had pretty much most of the methodology stuff done. And I realized well actually that’s a good package argument in itself. Part of the argument I was making is that Jesus studies needs a new method.
In fact, the method that I’m advocating is a method all historians should use. It actually underlies all historical methods. So, making a broader argument that would be applicable to Jesus studies. I took all the methodology stuff and put it in there.
What I kept from the Jesus studies is one chapter demonstrating… I’m just following up on what other Scholars have done, demonstrating that the current methodology is bankrupt, it’s invalid. It’s this what they call “criteria of historicity that they’re using.
The most common is like the argument from embarrassment, the criterion of double dissimilarity and all these fancy names. Some are obviously the argument from vividness and what not. There’s a list, I come out with about 31 of these things [laughter] with overlap and different uses of words. They’re probably may be a 100 that have been advocated.
But they’d all probably reduce to at least 31, maybe even less than 31. There’s probably some more where I’ll have to go dig up the ones I’ve identified. I go through point by point showing how they’re logically invalid. They don’t lead to the conclusions that they purport to.
LUKE: Wait. So, Richard what you’re talking about here is, if somebody is familiar with Christian apologetics from the past 30 years, you’ve probably heard people arguing that the resurrection of Jesus really happened because the source materials meet these certain criteria for historicity. Things like the criterion of embarrassment, the criterion of dissimilarity, that kind of thing. Could you give examples of what a few of those are just so that people know what we’re talking about?
RICHARD: Yes. I’ll give you one that I’ve already written about many times. It’s in “Not The Impossible Faith”, it’s in “The Empty Tomb” in many chapters in there. One of which is the argument for embarrassment. The basic argument is, and I spent a lot of time on this in this forthcoming book. It’s the one key example they use and I completely destroy it. The basic argument is that Christian authors would not make up or preserve stories that painted them in a bad light or that made their mission difficult. They’re not going to make it hard for themselves.
So, when they do something like put women as the discoverers of the empty tomb, the first to discover the empty tomb, when women had such a low status and no one trusted their testimony, this is the argument. This is the way they pose the argument. Why would you do that?
If you’re going to make up a story about the empty tomb you put men there because people trusted men and not women. There are a number of problems with this. The whole argument is logically invalid to begin with.
But it’s also factually incorrect and this is one thing I’ve pointed out. That this claim that woman’s testimony wasn’t trusted is simply not true. In “Not The Impossible Faith” I have a whole chapter demonstrating that.
The arguments that have been advanced for it are completely fallacious and wrong. So, the criterion doesn’t even apply. What I do in this book is not only do I point out that often happens but that the criterion itself is defective.
There are many examples and I give several where completely false things that made great difficulties for religious people were invented none the less. We know they’re invented. One of them is the castration of Attis. There’s this Attis cult, there’s this whole religion going on around the time of Christianity, it originates before Christianity.
It spreads through Rome like 100 BC at least, so it’s all over the place. In this there’s the myth that Attis kills… this is a God, the God Attis. Son of a God in fact even, kills himself by cutting off his balls. [laughter] In honor of this, his priests cut off their balls. [laughter]
Now in Roman culture this kind of emasculation is one of the most embarrassing insulting things that you do. It totally dehumanizes you and this whole sort of masculine, macho culture is like that. That’s the worst thing you could do and why on earth would you ever worship a eunuch as your savior?
That’s just disgusting and foul and contrary to all nature. A lot of Romans make this argument. It’s just ridiculous and absurd. It’s like Seneca has a line… If it wasn’t for the vast number of the mad throng you would be certain they were crazy, right?
It’s the only argument you have for them being sane is that there’s so many of them. Other than that there’s no argument really. So, clearly there was no son of God Attis who cut off his balls. That’s clearly a myth, it’s completely made up.
So, this idea that people wouldn’t invent embarrassing things to sell their religion is intrinsically false. It’s the inference, the principle of inference is wrong to begin with. So, the reality is more complicated than that.
In this book that’s coming out on “Bayes’ Theorem And The Historical Method” I get more sophisticated. The argument for embarrassment is similar to a legal argument that allows hearsay: statements against interest. It’s called statement against interest and there’s already a whole legal literature built up on the application.
It’s based on the same idea that normally hearsay can’t be admitted in court because you can’t question the person who said it. That’s part of the fourth amendment that says you’re entitled to interrogate your witnesses or something like that. Or at least it entails that.
I can’t remember exactly the wording but the point is they’ve interpreted the fourth amendment as meaning it’s unconstitutional to present witnesses against you that you can’t inquire or that you can’t interrogate.
So, hearsay can’t get in, but there are several exceptions to the hearsay rule. Not all of them are logical but none the less they’re traditional and are locked in the law.
One of them is this idea of a statement against interest, that person who said it couldn’t possibly have said it unless they believed it.
Like it’s so contrary to their interests and that in itself is enough to support the statement being true and so then you can admit that testimony.
So, it’s a really complicated, convoluted thing as to in legal theory but it’s a basic similar principle.
And legal scholars have questioned this saying it’s not even logically valid in terms of that doesn’t make the testimony any more reliable. The way that this legal theory is washed out in terms of case law and everything is that, statements against interest are still admissible.
But usually juries are instructed to say that you can’t assume that it’s true, that you have to critically evaluate the evidence like any other.
And even some scholars say we shouldn’t even be letting these things in because there’s too much opportunity for bias and influence and so on.
Various things have been said and I point out the similarity between them, discuss the legal literature and all that. Then I construct a logically valid version of the argument that’s broader that could be applied to law and history and everything.
And show that it only applies in very specific circumstances, none of which are satisfied in the gospels for example.
So, I go through that, and not only do I do that but I also show the correct inference, the correct structure of inference has to be Bayesian, meaning it has to conform to Bayes’ Theorem. That’s one of the leading main argument of this coming book and it’s probably the most controversial and unfamiliar part of that book.
I use the Jesus study as an example in fact because it will also be useful in my next book. I also want to make this argument to historians generally so the first book will be broadly of interest. It won’t be just for Jesus studies.
So, I defend that thing. The one chapter I have refuting all the historicity criteria is like the deconstructive part of the whole project, because once you see that their methods are wrong they don’t have any valid basis…
It doesn’t follow that just because their arguments are fallacious that their conclusions are wrong. It is possible to have completely fallacious arguments and the conclusions still just happen to be true. This first volume won’t refute the historicity of Jesus. It will just show that the fundamental basis for it is unsound.
RICHARD: Now, historians could come along, take my own method, and then create a sound argument for the historicity of Jesus. In fact, I encourage that if it can be done. In fact, that needs to be done frankly, especially if you think historicity is defensible and true you need to be able to take this valid method and defend it to show that it is true. That’s the purpose of the first volume.
The second volume is going to show that it isn’t true.
RICHARD: By analyzing the facts. That will be controversial in its own right.
RICHARD: And even that, I’m going to pose it as “this is just a hypothesis. Here’s why I think it’s right. Now it’s out there, now it’s rigorous. A professional historian has written it. I’ve got a logically valid method. As far as I can tell, the facts are all right. So tell me why I’m wrong?”
RICHARD: I’m hoping that will start a debate in the academic community that won’t bypass the sort of… the standard historicity stuff has been outside academia, often times not methodologically rigorous.
RICHARD: … easy to dismiss on those grounds alone. Fallaciously, but none the less easy. I want to make the argument more serious and finally get to a point where we can either agree that it’s undecidable or that historicity is defensible by a logically valid method or that its not. I’m hoping maybe 20 years from now my book will have started a debate that will end within 20 years or we will have a consensus on one of those three end points. Even though my book will argue for one of those endpoints, I don’t assume that’s where it’s going to end up, but I think it’s probable that it will.
LUKE: So what you’re really doing in your first volume is talking about how we need to develop a rigorous method for getting at the truth about what probable happened in history. You’re certainly not satisfied with the types of methods that are used in historical Jesus studies much of the time.
LUKE: But you are also presenting something that is somewhat new to the practice of history anyway, not very new to the practice of science. Could you talk a little bit about that and the differences between how history is currently done and what you are proposing in this upcoming book?
RICHARD: Yeah and generalizing too to other fields other than Jesus studies. One of the things I do in one of the chapters in this first book is I actually take all of the major common historical methods that are used in general, not just in Jesus studies, and show that when they are valid, and they often are, they are completely described by Bayes’ Theorem so that in fact they are really just iterations of Bayes’ Theorem stated in different ways.
RICHARD: In fact, the only way to make them valid is to define them in Bayesian terms. I show examples. Even methods that I once advocated. For example, in Sense And Goodness Without God I have a section on historical epistemology and I give two common methodologies used by historians. One is the argument to the best explanation and the argument from evidence. I show the structure of them. They look great. You are like, “Oh, yeah, those are really sound methods. You’re right. That’s probably the best way to do history.” A lot of historians would agree.
RICHARD: Other than post modernists, all historians would agree with those two methods. They might even propose some of their own that are similar. The problem with those methods is when you start to get down to the nitty-gritty; they don’t solve two particular problems. One is what I call the threshold problem. They list criteria that evidence of a theory must meet for it to be true, but the methods themselves don’t say when it’s true.
RICHARD: Does each criteria count the same? What if there is some contradiction, it fails some criteria and passes others. What if you have two competing theories? How do you adjudicate…? At what point does something being more probable become actually probable. That’s something that I run into and point out in the book. A lot of historians, “Well this makes the historicity of Jesus more probable therefore Jesus probably existed” which is a non sequitur.
RICHARD: I can point out… You could take a 1% chance and make it 10% and you have multiplied the probability 10 times which is a huge increase in probability but it is still 90% chance you’re wrong.
RICHARD: Ten percent is not enough to believe… anyway; I take these historical methods and show that they reduce to Bayes’ Theorem. I think that’s why this will be broadly appealing to historians generally because you can see “oh yeah, that’s a good sound method. It’s like what I do.” Then I show that it’s really Bayes’ Theorem and then they will kind of understand “oh, that’s what logically validates that”.
RICHARD: And the threshold problem is an example of that. Bayes’ Theorem solves the threshold problem. There are lot of questions I get asked like “what about this, what about that, isn’t difficult, and here’s why I don’t think it would work, etc.” The book deals with all of those.
RICHARD: I’ve interacted with historians and philosophers so that I know those standard objections and I answer them all. That’s the point of the book. There’s another book I think called The Logic of Scientific Method or The Logic of Science where it makes this argument where it makes the argument that all scientific method reduces to Bayes’ Theorem. I am doing this now for history, and I think that unites…
LUKE: By E.T. Jaynes?
RICHARD: What’s that?
LUKE: By E.T. Jaynes?
RICHARD: Yeah, I think it’s Jaynes, right?
LUKE: Probability, Theory: The Logic of Science.
RICHARD: That’s it. Exactly.
LUKE: So you are doing the same thing for history?
RICHARD: Exactly. I’m uniting humanities and sciences.
RICHARD: Which I think is unpopular to do among members of the humanities, but I think it is more attractive to members of the mathematics community. They see more value in making humanities mathematical where as people in the humanities are terrified of math and dogmatically opposed to even the idea…
RICHARD: … that they have to think in math or do anything rigorous to get their conclusions.
LUKE: That’s too bad.
RICHARD: Yeah, oh, I know. John Allen Paulos has a book called Innumeracy that illustrates the fact that this fear of math is actually a real threatening problem to a democratic society. We shouldn’t have this. Humanities shouldn’t be encouraging this. Math should be much more fundamental to how we conduct our lives and to our education system. Even the way we teach math is virtually useless. We are basically creating human calculators to be future engineers, most of whom will never be future engineers so it is pointless.
Even geometry is taught like “here are the procedures” and you are just a human calculator. You don’t really understand what you’re doing or why it even matters.
RICHARD: There is so much mathematics that’s important. One of the examples I give that is related to Bayes’ Theorem is simply statistics in and of itself. We are politically manipulated constantly by the use of statistics. It’s routine. You’ve got poll numbers just constantly. All kinds of statistical arguments are made in the media and in the political arena.
If you don’t even understand how statistics are generated and the ways they can be manipulated or erroneous, which is all mathematical knowledge. You need this knowledge as a democratic citizen. It’s necessary.
It’s probably the most important mathematics that could be taught in high schools and yet, as far as I know, no high school teaches it.
RICHARD: Or if they do it’s an elective that only nerds would take, right?
RICHARD: It should be fundamental. It’s way more important than geometry, and I think geometry is pretty important.
RICHARD: It’s more important than algebra even though you need some basic algebra to do statistics. When you take an algebra course, most of what you are doing in these bizarre quadratic equations, who needs that? No one needs to know how to solve a quadratic equation unless you are going to go into a field that specifically requires that. Even those fields are becoming fewer and fewer because you just have a computer do it for you. You don’t really need to do it manually.
I think that’s a waste of students’ time. I think if you’re going to do Algebra, you should have just the basic algebra you need to do all these other practical applications like statistics and so forth.
RICHARD: In fact, I think you can have a course on algebra that starts with algebra and ends with statistics.
RICHARD: It isn’t just the one thing.
RICHARD: Although I think you should have more than one year in high school for sure, because you will forget just one year. And it should be applied. They make you a human calculator, follow the procedures, and get the answer. It should be, “here’s an actual real world problem that can be solved with this”.
RICHARD: Let’s show you how it’s solved. Even pick one where here’s where someone is lying but it doesn’t look like they are lying.
RICHARD: And if you understand the mathematics you will understand why you are being lied to. That’s the kind of thing I think would be much more useful to teach. It’s a shame that humanities people are afraid of this or don’t get it or give it lip service but when the chips are on the table they don’t really…
RICHARD: They are not very accepting of the idea.
LUKE: So, what’s the value of Bayes’ Theorem and why does it matter so much for science and in particular for your field, history?
RICHARD: Oh, yes. Well it matters, and this is a point that I make in the book, that all valid reasoning is modeled by Bayes’ Theorem. Now most people, when they study logic, if they’ve studied logic, and not many people have, but – well, more and more people have, but…
When you study logic you’re usually taught the basic syllogism: you have premise, premise, conclusion, you know, major premise, minor premise and a conclusion follows. And they think that’s all logic is.
But you can easily show that those methods are flawed in most real-world cases because you don’t have absolute certainty, and that’s the thing: that the conclusion depends on both premises being true…
RICHARD: But you don’t know that. You know that to a probability, and not everything has the same probability.
RICHARD: So what happens when the major and minor premise both have a probability of being true and those probabilities aren’t the same? What then? How does the conclusion come out? What’s the probability of the conclusion?
RICHARD: Standard syllogistic logic cannot give you the answer to that. And yet, that’s how almost all reasoning in the real world proceeds.
RICHARD: Because you have probable, different degrees of probability of different premises and you need to arrive at a conclusion. So, standard logic is useless in that sense. It’s useful conceptually to get concepts through and understand where flaws are, but when it comes to real-world reasoning, like “should I believe this claim or not?”, standard syllogistic logic is useless, essentially.
The solution is Bayes’ theorem, and this was developed in the eighteenth century – the eighteenth and early nineteenth century – ironically shortly after David Hume wrote his On Miracles, where he’s just an inch away from getting it.
Because his argument in that is almost Bayes’ theorem, it’s not quite. The logic of the argument is there. In fact all the flaws people have pointed out in Hume’s argument are exactly the flaws that are corrected by Bayes’ theorem.
RICHARD: And so, Thomas Bayes came out with this shortly after that and gave a rigorous defense – I don’t know if he ever read Hume or anything – not of Hume’s thing but he gave a rigorous defense and formal logical proof of the validity of the theory, which is an important development. Because it means that the conclusion follows from the premises necessarily, and it’s completely valid.
And I make the point in the book that anything that goes against a logically valid theorem can’t itself be logically valid, and I show this logically that, that’s the thing.
So, Bayes’ theorem becomes a very powerful tool to test things, and because it works this way, you can state the premises in terms of probability and it shows you how to calculate the probability of the conclusion once you’ve set the premises.
RICHARD: That’s the value of Bayes’ theorem, and scientists are almost unanimous in agreement – there’s some disagreement as to how broadly applicable it is – but most scientists agree not only that Bayes’ theorem is a correct description of scientific method, but that it can probably replace in many cases the methods that are used. There’s recently – and I cite this in the book – there’s a recent article that came out pointing out that a lot of the statistical arguments in science journals – like for medicines and treatments and things like that – are logically invalid, and they point out the kinds of common errors that even expert scientists are making in statistics.
And it’s a celebrated article because there wasn’t anybody who could argue against it; they’re basically right.
RICHARD: And they, one of the things they suggest is usually if you point out a problem, you kind of: ‘what’s a solution’. They didn’t defend a solution but they said the solution is probably Bayes’ theorem, because Bayes’ theorem solves all of these problems. So, that’s an example of how – that’s the kind of dialog going on in the scientific community, but it needs to be going on inside any other community that claims to be making factual truth claims…
RICHARD: … because those are the same kinds of things.
RICHARD: .You have probabilistic premises, you need to figure out how probable the conclusion is; it’s the exact same situation. It’s described by the exact same logic, so you need to understand it to go forward.
LUKE: Yeah. If what you’re doing is taking E.T. Jaynes to history, I mean, who’s going to argue with that? I don’t know, it seems like such an obvious thing, but I guess it does have so much resistance in the humanities, but that’s an argument you’re going to win, Richard [laughs] .
RICHARD: [laughs] I agree I’ll be right, I think it’s pretty clear; but winning is, of course, the question of persuading, really. So, how many people will be persuaded? I’m sure there will be a lot of resistant people. Well, just look in the history community, at post-modernists. Most historians are fairly certain that the post-modernists are full of shit, and that’s pretty much the consensus in history now. And yet there are still postmodernists, right?
There are still postmodernist historians; there are feminist post-modernist historians that are the laughing stock of most of the history community.
And yet they have tenured professorships and get academic press publications and things like that. So, I don’t think I’ll convince everyone, but the only people who won’t be convinced are people who are irrationally, dogmatically opposed to what I’m arguing.
LUKE: Richard, I want to ask you about the logical foundation for Bayes’ theorem. Cox and Jaynes and some other people have argued that Bayes’ theorem is really just an extension of the foundations of mathematical logic and can be validated. Do you think that project has succeeded?
RICHARD: Yes, oh yeah. They’re completely correct in that. I mean, that’s one of the things that Jaynes accomplished was showing that the syllogistic logic and Bayes’ theorem can be reduced to each other, just that syllogism becomes more complicated; in fact it becomes complicated to exactly the point that it becomes Bayes’ theorem.
RICHARD: So he’s showing that sound syllogistic logic using probabilistic premises is Bayes’ theorem. I mean, that’s his argument, is that they’re one and the same, really.
RICHARD: And he’s right about that. And I’m not sure there are many people who disagree with him about that. People who don’t know the thesis…
RICHARD: But there are people who have read it, those who are familiar with it. I think most of them that I’ve encountered agree that he’s right about that.
LUKE: Yeah. Well, what would the argument be, then, for not applying Bayes’ theorem to reasoning about facts of history? Like, what’s the counter argument?
RICHARD: Right, what’s the blowback?
RICHARD: No, there are a number of them actually, and they sound very plausible at first.
LUKE: Let’s hear them..
RICHARD: I can’t give you them all, you don’t have time.
RICHARD: That’s what the book is for, it addresses tons of them, and I’m sure your audience is listening now like: “Ah, what about this? No, it can’t work because…”
Well, what are the big ones? Let’s take one that even scientists debate even among scientists in applying Bayes’ theorem: is the problem of subjective probability estimates.
Obviously, I mean obviously, in history especially – but even in science this is often the case – we don’t have hard, scientifically verified statistical data. We don’t, we can’t poll – we can’t take a scientific phone poll of ancient Roman populations, right? Things like that, you don’t have that kind of data.
There are few cases where you do, very few, and it’s very limited what we can learn from them. Most history doesn’t have access to that data. So you have to give a sort of subjective probability estimate, because people would say “you’re just making shit up, or you’re guessing, or something”.
What I point out in the book and demonstrate in detail, is that: this is how we reason all the time anyway, so if this is a valid objection to Bayes’ theorem, it’s a valid objection to all of human reasoning.
RICHARD: And what I point out also is that: Yeah, you might not know the exact probability. You might not know that 87% of Romans thought X or Y or whatever it is.
RICHARD: But you’ll know that it’s higher or lower than a certain number.
RICHARD: You can say something like: You know for a fact that half of all the bodies in the ancient world were not robbed from their graves, you know? You know, whatever the probability is – and it is a non-zero probability – it wasn’t 50%, it’s less than that.
RICHARD: And so a lot of the things where you can say things like that, where you might not know the exact probability, but you know where the limit is, and you can go a little further beyond that limit and be really sure; and I show how this is actually statistically valid. It’s actually logically valid and mathematically valid reasoning, based on the statistical study – the statistical mathematics – of confidence levels and error margins.
RICHARD: And when you do that – you make the error margin as wide as you can reasonably believe it to be – the conclusion is what you must reasonably conclude it to be.
RICHARD: And once your estimate is: you can say “it’s unreasonable to say the percentage is lower than this, therefore it’s” – and this follows from direct deductive logic – “it’s unreasonable to say the conclusion’s probability is less than this.”
RICHARD: And that can be a very useful argument. In fact it’s really the only proper, sound way to argue about historical claims. Of course the religious will be very annoyed by this because they don’t like probability. They don’t like the idea that you’re not certain about what happened, you can only say “It’s a probability to a certain level”. But that’s their problem.
LUKE: The uncertainty is built into the math, and the math is built to work with uncertainty.
RICHARD: Yeah, absolutely. The probability is ambiguous, yes. But so is the reasoning even without the math, but with the math we can model the ambiguity, and model exactly where the limits of your knowledge are.
RICHARD: So that’s how the response comes out, but that’s the typical objection is like: “Well, how do you get – “. That’s the one I always hear. That’s like the first question any time I give a talk on this.
LUKE: “How do you know what numbers to plug in to Bayes’ theorem?”
RICHARD: That’s right, that’s right, yeah, exactly. And usually once I start talking about examples they realize it’s a lot easier than they think and in fact it’s how they’ve already been reasoning, they just haven’t been using numbers, they’ve been using vague terms like “very probable.” Once you say, once you say that phrase, “very probable,” you’re talking mathematics; you can’t claim not to be. Anytime you say something is more probable than another, I mean anytime you say more than another, that’s math, you’re doing math.
RICHARD: And so what I’m saying is, stop pretending you’re not doing math ’cause to get your conclusion you’ve got to be valid, you’ve got to have a valid argument. So let’s acknowledge that you’re using math, let’s acknowledge that you’re doing it and do it right.
LUKE: And do it rigorously.
RICHARD: Yeah, so that’s the correct definition of what I’m talking about. And for that it’s like, in history we don’t need exact probabilities of anything, even the subjective probabilities are really objective because if you’re going to make an argument to another historian and say, “You should agree with me on this,” even if you don’t do it based on Bayes Theorem, you’re still saying “you should agree that these things are likely.”
If you do it with Bayes Theorem it’s exactly the same, “Well you should agree that the probability is at least sixty seven percent,” and if you agree with that, you have to agree with the conclusion, ’cause it follows necessarily by deductive logic.
And that’s the way I think historians should be arguing amongst each other. And a lot of disagreements could be resolved, even to the point where both sides agree we can’t really know what the answer is.
Like they might have both been confidently on both sides of an issue and then realize that “We really don’t know” or one or the other side will realize that the other is right. And that’s the only way progress can be made in the field and that’s how I propose questions in Jesus studies need to be resolved as well.
LUKE: Well, the Jaynes book in 2001 was a real landmark in the development of Bayesian theory and that’s very recent. Are there other historians or philosophers of history who have begun to do history with Bayes’ Theorem or is this really… it’s been difficult for you to draw on anybody else because there hasn’t been anybody else?
RICHARD: Yeah, well there are two answers to that, I guess there are two separate things. One is archaeologists have been making this argument already, they were there before me and so there are actually a couple of textbooks for archaeologists to apply Bayes’ Theorem to what they do.
RICHARD: And, archaeologists basically are historians, they just work with artifacts instead of texts.
RICHARD: But texts are artifacts and so it’s not a big leap to… they have particular mission objectives that might not be perfectly analogous but the underlying logic of it is the same. So the actual techniques they teach won’t be useful to a historian who isn’t doing archaeology but the justification for doing it is. So archaeology, there’s been some done there.
The other point is McCullough, C. Behan McCullough, wrote a book, “Justifying Historical Descriptions.”
And he’s written many other books defending historical method against post modernism. Really good book. “Justifying Historical Descriptions” talks about all the historical methods, all the epistemology of history that’s popular.
And so like, how do you justify historical descriptions? The title of the book.
RICHARD: And he goes through different types of methods and shows the merits and demerits of each. And in the process of this he briefly discusses Bayes’ Theorem and says, “This has been proposed by a few people,” and he lists them and talks about them. But he says, “Well, it looks great, but it doesn’t really work because of this, that and the other thing.” And he has like three or four pages on this.
And then he moves on and settles on what he thinks is the most defensible which is the argument to the best explanation.
What I show in my book and I sent this to him and he said, “I’m very impressed that you did this because you’re totally right about it,” is that his preferred method – and it is the best method that he describes in the book and probably the best method that I’ve seen any historian describe: the argument to the best explanation is this particular criteria-based argument – is completely reducible to Bayes’ Theorem; in fact it’s only valid when it’s Bayesian.
And I show this reduction. And C. Behan McCullough wrote back and said, “Yeah, that’s very impressive. I’m very glad that you did that because it’s interesting to see…”
RICHARD: “…that particular analysis.” And he was overjoyed to see that it could be reduced that way. He was still a little hesitant to adopt Bayes’ Theorem because of certain common questions – the subjective probabilities estimate thing and various others – but questions I’ve already answered in the book.
Anyway, that’s the background that I’ve been working with. So it is… a few historians have toyed with the idea, archaeologists are arguing for it but I’m the first one to really make a thorough, rigorous defense of the use of Bayes’ Theorem in history. No one else has done quite what I’m doing.
LUKE: That’s great. Now the approach to history that McCullough advocates toward the end of “Justifying Historical Descriptions,” is that… like an explanatory virtues account, argument to the best explanation… where whichever explanation has these virtues is most likely?
RICHARD: Yeah, which runs into the threshold problem like how much of the virtues does it need before it’s believable?
RICHARD: But yeah, it’s five criteria. The measure of explanatory power, explanatory scope, ad hoc-ness… I can’t remember them all off the top of my head.
RICHARD: That’s three of them to give you an example, three of the five criteria. And these are all things, or statements about the evidence and the theory, like their degree of fitness between them, that give a theory, the more it meets these criteria the more likely it is to be true.
RICHARD: And that I think, that’s a logical, valid statement because all the criteria do logically entail that, but the more it meets that the more likely it is to be true. The question is, more likely again is not likely… you need to go to a point like when is more likely, when is more probably equal probably? And his presentation of the theory doesn’t even discuss this problem. So it doesn’t even acknowledge the problem exists.
And the reason he did it is because he said, “Well this is a case where one theory if it clearly exceeds all other theories on these criteria, then it’s probably true.” Which is valid.
Because… to a point that’s a correct explanation because if something satisfies a lot of those criteria really well and so much further than other theories, then it’s unlikely there’s any other theory that’s going to turn out to be true than the one you’re defending.
But that’s quite not enough and not all problems are that simple. It’s usually not like there’s not usually one theory that’s so far and away better than all the others that it’s obvious that it’s right.
There are a lot of times where it’s very, very plausible competing accounts of something that are so close and might be close on different criteria which is really problematic. Like, one might be really good on criteria one and two while another one is really good on criteria three and four.
RICHARD: Well now what? So Bayes’ Theorem is the way out of that.
LUKE: Yeah. Now I was speaking a little while ago with Lydia McGrew who is a Christian apologist and wrote an article on the Resurrection and defended the Resurrection by using Bayes’ Theorem. I was speaking with her and asked about inference to the best explanation, or argument to the best explanation, and she seems to agree with you that argument to the best explanation can be sort of an intuitive, semi non-mathematical way to get towards the truth but it’s got to come back to Bayes’ Theorem.
LUKE: And I agree with her even though I do talk a lot about argument to the best explanation but a lot of that is because nobody would read my blog if I just gave Bayes’ Theorem in every post.
RICHARD: Oh sure, yeah.
LUKE: But I do agree that it has to come back to Bayes’ Theorem.
RICHARD: It’s still a useful rule of thumb.
RICHARD: It’s still useful to learn it, it’s just, it’s not enough really.
RICHARD: It’s better to know that than to know neither, frankly, so…
LUKE: Yeah. But then, so she’s using a Bayesian method at least to try to argue for the Resurrection of Jesus and you very much disagree with that conclusion.
LUKE: So where is the disagreement then if you somewhat agree on the method but you’re coming to very different conclusions?
RICHARD: Well, I’m curious to know what she actually claimed on the interview, because the article in the Companion to Natural Theology does not come to any conclusion. One of the conspicuously missing things is the prior probability, one of the key premises of the entire argument. All they talk about are what we call two of the four premises of Bayes’ Theorem and they make an argument from those two premises.
But you can’t reach a conclusion without answering the other two premises and they never do, which I find disturbing because it suggests… and they don’t really explain this very well, I mean they kind of hint at it.
But considering the fact that the kinds of people who are going to be reading this Companion, a lot of them are not going to be sophisticated enough to know that they’ve been hoodwinked like that… in fact, the mere fact that you and other people, I’ve met other people who say, “Yeah, she argues for the Resurrection,” say, that’s not what she even argues at all.
RICHARD: Was she deliberately misleading about that? And that’s kind of the problem I have with it. All they argue is that certain evidence makes the resurrection more probable.
RICHARD: Again, that’s completely useless information. [laughs] We could go from 1% to 10%, that’s 10 times more probable. Yeah, that makes it more probable. It’s still 90% chance it’s false.
RICHARD: So, it’s a useless argument. Why would they publish in a companion to natural theology an incomplete argument that doesn’t even argue for the resurrection? What’s the point of that? And not even to explain in a closing paragraph as you would in a science paper, for example. If you did this in a science journal, believe me, the peer review would mandate that you have this closing paragraph explaining that you haven’t actually proved your conclusion you have just done one step of two essentially to do that. So that’s one problem.
Another problem is that her facts are all wrong. Of course, that’s a common problem. That doesn’t indict Bayes’ Theorem. Obviously you put the wrong facts into the theorem, you’re going to get the wrong conclusion. That’s a straight forward problem of all reasoning methods. You don’t attack a theorem, you attack the facts.
RICHARD: And there are a lot of things in there where their facts are just plain wrong. In my chapter on the resurrection, it’s called ‘Why the Resurrection is unbelievable’ in the Christian Delusion edited by John Loftus. I wrote that… I didn’t want to bother citing the McGrews’ article. It’s such a crappy article.
RICHARD: It’s a bad introduction of Bayes’ Theorem. It really is. Specifically because it doesn’t explain this.
RICHARD: And it has all these fancy calculations and stuff that make it look very impressive. It seems to me like it is hoodwinking the public in a way. So anyway, but my chapter does address it. It’s like I specifically crafted the chapter. In fact, I even put Bayesian arguments… I have it all in colloquial English but then in the end notes I have a Bayesian version of what I said.
I talk about all the facts they do, and I hit many of the same points. Unlike them, I talk about the problem of prior probability and get that nailed down.
So, if you want to see a reply to that, read that chapter. It’s not like a “McGrew said this and this is wrong because…”
LUKE: Right, right.
RICHARD: But once you’ve read that chapter you’ll understand what is wrong with their chapter.
LUKE: Right. I think it is something a little slippery going on. Actually in that same volume of the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, the Robin Collins chapter in particular in the fine tuning argument…
LUKE: … is a very similar kind of thing. He is using Bayes’ Theorem to argue in defense of the fine tuning argument for the existence of a supernatural designer but he doesn’t put in priors. The conclusion is just that it’s more probable looking at this evidence than before which doesn’t give you a conclusion at all.
RICHARD: You know, I’m not sure that he commits that error necessarily. I do think he talks about relative degree of priors.
LUKE: Yeah. And I’m wondering if that’s the way the McGrews maybe were intending to argue.
RICHARD: Well, it can’t be for them because prior probability is so fundamental to…. The prior probability of a miracle is the most fundamental premise that has to be established for their theory. It’s just absolutely essential there. In the case of the fine tuning argument, you could make the argument, and this is the argument that Collins makes, of what’s called the consequent probability. The probability of the evidence given the different hypothesis is so huge…
The difference between them is so vast that it really doesn’t even matter what the prior probability would be. There is no way the prior probability that there is no God is like 99.999999 %.
He says it comes to some… I don’t know if he’s the one who comes to it, but I’m sure he would agree, that the odds of the universe existing if it wasn’t designed are like one in 10 to the 10 millionth power.
RICHARD: If you know anything about math, that’s a fucking huge number. [laughter]
RICHARD: So, what are the odds that that’s the prior probability that God exists. I wouldn’t even agree that the probability that God exists is one in 10 to the 10 millionth power. I don’t think it’s that low. At least, if we were to argue it’s that low, you really need make a good argument and show me that it’s that low. Unlike the McGrews, he’s assuming that the difference in evidential probabilities is so vast that the prior probability, you don’t need to nail that down to make his argument. The problem is that he misuses what is called background evidence. This is one of the common ways to misuse Bayes’ Theorem. You can’t ignore evidence. That’s one of the key things.
Evidence either has to go in the evidence box or in the background evidence box. Background evidence here is absolutely key. He knows this because he even admits it.
There is a point in there where you are reading through this dense, long, vast article and you’d miss it if you didn’t know what you were looking for.
Briefly he mentions, yeah, if you grant this particular premise that these other authors have written about who also applied Bayes’ theorem and get the exact opposite answer that he does on the fine tuning… When I mean exact opposite, they prove that fine tuning disproves the existence of God.
RICHARD: When in fact fine tuning makes the existence of God much less likely than what else we could have observed.
LUKE: Who is that?
RICHARD: Sober and Akeida and Jeffries. Akeida and Jeffries have an article on that, and Sober did one before them. They both make the point that the probability of the evidence existing…. Let’s say for example, this is the premise. This is Collins’ premise. He agrees with this. If there is no God, then the only way we could be here to observe anything is if fine tuning occurred. It doesn’t matter how improbable that is, there is no other way that we could be here.
According to Bayes’ theorem, the probability we would observe a fine tuned universe on the hypothesis that there is no God, is 100%.
RICHARD: It’s not one in 10 to the 10 millionth power. It’s 100%. Which completely destroys his entire argument. He acknowledges this in one sentence. “Yes if, you include in the background evidence the fact that we exist as observers then the probability is 100% and my argument is wrong”.
RICHARD: But, and he does some legerdemain… and says, “I’m going to move the observers exist out of B, out of background evidence, and put it in E for the evidence”.
LUKE: Yeah, yeah.
RICHARD: The problem is, you can’t do that. If you do that you still have the background evidence cogito ergo sum, right? So I’m going to move that out of there and put… You’re assuming. The problem is his whole argument is premised on the assumption that observers don’t exist.
RICHARD: It’s like you were say, any conclusion that is based on the assumption that observers don’t exist is of no interest to observers, right? [laughs] His conclusion is valid if there was some sort of God being sitting outside a huge conglomerate of universes and only life is in some of them. It would work for that being, but it’s not going to work for the people who are in those universes.
RICHARD: So it just doesn’t make any sense. That’s the key problem with his argument. And it’s shocking that he makes that argument because he ought to know better. In fact, that one sentence snuck in there shows he knows better. So I don’t know what he thinks he’s up to.
LUKE: So, a lot of people are going to be fairly confused because most people aren’t familiar with Bayes’ theorem, and I’m certainly not an expert in Bayes’ theorem.
LUKE: It seems like such a powerful tool. How long would it take somebody to be just moderately proficient in Bayes’ theorem do you think?
RICHARD: Oh. I actually taught a brief seminar on it at the Amherst Conference. I gave a talk on what I’m talking about here, about applying Bayes’ Theorem to Jesus studies. I asked people if they wanted a little tutorial. There was like a little period of time where there was an hour free and anybody who wanted to come could come and I’d give you a basic tutorial.
I took about an hour I would think just from that experience in terms of how much they absorbed in that time, maybe five hours of lecture and participation would be enough to be reasonably competent, at least to the point where you understand well enough to identify when Bayes’ argument is being used correctly or incorrectly.
RICHARD: And well enough to use basic forms of Bayes’ Theorem in any other situation. I’d guess about five hours of tutorial on that would be enough.
LUKE: And right now, what is going to be the best way for people to learn through the resources that they have available. If there isn’t a workshop in their area…
RICHARD: Yeah, to a large extent that’s one of the objectives of my book. I explain and articulate Bayes’ Theorem in a way that I hope laymen can understand. I’ve had some laymen read it and say that they understand it a lot better having read my book. I don’t know any defense of Bayes’ Theorem that is as extensive and as clear as mine that is aimed at non scientists and non specialists. I’ve seen a few attempts at it, but they are not as detailed and they leave too much misunderstood or under explained.
RICHARD: But, yeah, that’s the point of my book amongst other things. It uses history as an example.
LUKE: Excellent. When is it coming out? [laughs]
RICHARD: It’s done. I’m shopping for a publisher.
LUKE: All right.
RICHARD: So it’s difficult to find publishers with slots, because I’m under contractual obligation with my donors who funded this project to publish with an academic press. The problem with academic presses is they only have a few slots for books. They don’t even read the manuscript. They just look at the prospectus. They might not even read the abstract. They’ll just read the title and say, “That doesn’t fit our profile” or that…
RICHARD: … We’ve got these other books we want to do more,” and they fill the slots. So I’ve already gotten some letters saying essentially that, that “We don’t have any slots for it.” That’s the difficult point, is to get to the point where they’ll even look at the manuscript. So I’ve been going around to different publishers. I think part of the problem I’ve had so far is that I’ve been submitting to religious studies editors and humanities and history editors. They see something that’s about mathematics and immediately assume it doesn’t fit their profile of the books, that they’re supposed to go in the slots.
So I think they’re dismissing it as not even like, “You should have talked to a different editor. This is the wrong thing.” They haven’t said that, but I suspect is the case because humanities people freak out when they see any reference to math.
RICHARD: It’s still sitting at one publisher now. I’m waiting to hear. But if they also reject it or don’t even want to look at it, I’m going to start hitting up mathematics editors. So like MIT Press because I know MIT Press has done things like this where they take a mathematical scientific thing and apply it to a humanities subject. So they seem keen on it. The only reason normally you wouldn’t do that is that there’s probably no one at MIT Press who’s an expert in Jesus studies, right? But maybe they don’t need to be because they’re going to send it out to peer review anyway. So it finally occurred to me, “Oh, OK. I should be sending this to mathematics people.”
So that’s what I’ll try next if it continues that these humanities people who keep saying it doesn’t fit their slot profile. [laughs]
LUKE: I’ll just ask this. So when you apply this method of Bayes’ theorem to the question of the historical Jesus, I won’t particularly ask you to give the whole justification for everything. But for you when you do it, what’s the general picture of who this Jesus guy was? And what happened in the events of his life that comes together with some probability for you?
RICHARD: None, really. [laughter]
That’s the point. In my next book – the next volume will be on the historicity of Jesus Christ – I break the evidence down. First I have a section on background evidence, which is one important thing that oftentimes historians don’t mention and yet it’s a crucial part of your premise as a running argument. So I’ll have a chapter – actually two chapters – just covering background evidence that, in my experience, even experts in Jesus studies often don’t know these things. Yet they’ve been published by experts in Jesus studies. It’s like they don’t even know their own literature oftentimes.
LUKE: What’s some of the background evidence?
RICHARD: Well, some of the evidence – the whole connection between the Ananas cycle and “The Ascension of Isaiah,” for example. There was this big debate on Doherty’s website years ago about how similar they were or weren’t. For the book, I went back and revisited the evidence. It’s just so clear that there is a connection between them, and yet it’s very important because it’s basically a whole blueprint for a cosmic Jesus. It’s Doherty’s thesis right there in an ancient document in fact.
Now it doesn’t decisively prove his theorem, but it gives a key piece of evidence that makes his theory more likely.
It’s background evidence that makes the probabilities better than they would be without this evidence. It’s the kind of thing that most Jesus historians have never read “The Ascension of Isaiah,” and I don’t blame them because it’s a massive long document. It’s incredibly dull.
RICHARD: And it is considered apocryphal. Who cares? It’s not canonical, right?
RICHARD: There’s a lot of that that kind of thinking.
LUKE: [laughs] Right. It’s not canonical. [laughs]
RICHARD: Yeah. Well, I know.
RICHARD: Even secular historians will give that “Oh, it’s not canonical, so it can’t be relevant.”
LUKE: [laughs] Oh, my God!
RICHARD: [laughs] Then you spend like one minute answering that question. They go, “Well, OK. Yeah, you’re right. [laughter]
RICHARD: But nonetheless, it’s like they’re trying to make their lives easier by not reading all these incredibly boring, tedious things.
RICHARD: But one of the examples off topic and that is Origin. Origin has these commentaries on various gospels. They’re fragmentary. We don’t have the whole ones, and we don’t have all of them, which I find very suspicious. But anyway, these are the most mind-numbing, dull commentaries where you’re reading them and this guy was freaking insane, and yet he was one of the greatest Christian intellectuals of the first two centuries of the Christian [laughs] era. Anyway, apart from that aside, but there are other examples.
One is Doherty’s been criticized for his “Demons of the Air” thesis, this idea that everything on earth has a copy in heaven. In fact, it’s not even in heaven. There’s a copy in outer space between the earth and the moon that’s actually up in the air, right?
One thing they don’t understand is ancient cosmology. How they understood the world is very different from how we do.
There’s no vacuum in outer space. There were some philosophers who kept insisting there was, and of course they turned out to be right. But most people had arguments against it. The common man and most religious people didn’t buy into the vacuum of space thing.
To them, the air, the atmosphere, extended all the way to the moon, which then they did know was like 200, 000 miles away. The moon’s distance was accurately known then.
It was popularly known that it was at least tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of miles away. So they knew that there’s this vast realm of air. So all kinds of shit could be going on there that you wouldn’t see because it’s just so huge.
This air goes to the moon, and then past the moon is another kind of air called “ether” that another kind of animal breathes. Then that whole area is inhabited by angels and beings and stuff. This idea that there are the demons, which “demon” means divinity. It’s just the Greek word for divinity. So when Greeks talk about demons, they just mean gods.
So the Christians just gave it the pejorative sense, that they started “Demons!” and became evil. But that was a Jewish/Christian spin on a pagan idea. The pagans didn’t consider demons necessarily evil. There might be evil demons, but there are also good ones.
So when you hear anything in the Bible where Christian writers are talking about demons, in that context you need to put the word “god” in there, “gods.”
So like, “People are possessed by demons.” No, they’re possessed by gods. And these are pagan gods, the exact same gods that the pagans are worshipping, praying to, burning incense to, and all that stuff, which opens your mind to this whole dialogue was very different back then than you may have thought before.
But there’s this idea that everything on earth has a copy in heaven. So there are trees up in outer space or soil and so on. There’s buildings and all kinds of things.
So Doherty’s idea that it’s completely conceivable that when they say Jesus was crucified and buried, they mean he was crucified and buried in heaven in this outer space area, crucified by demons and buried up there and resurrected up there.
Of course, if that were the case, then he’s not historical because the odds of that actually having happened are virtually nil.
And we know well that if someone were claiming that – like they said – if we knew that was the first preaching… there’s this Jesus who came down to the lower reaches of outer space and was crucified by demons 10, 000 miles up above the [laughs] earth and then buried and resurrected up there, we wouldn’t know that that’s a total myth.
They’re not talking about a historical Jesus. They’re talking about some vision, some god that they had a vision of.
Now setting aside the question of whether that’s what happened in Christianity, Doherty’s been criticized for even the underlying background fact of there being demons of the air and for this to even be plausible. I know a lot of Jesus historians who know nothing about it. Some of them profess not to know anything about it.
Some of them will insist that that’s absurd, that that’s not the belief, knowing nothing whatsoever about it. So one of the things I do in my book is I provide extensive documentation – not just from primary evidence but also other actual scholars – demonstrating that, yes, this is a widespread view. It’s clearly a fundamental view in early Christianity.
So that in itself doesn’t prove that Jesus was crucified and buried in heaven, but it does mean now that it’s at least on the table as a possible theory. Now it’s a question of testing one theory against the other.
RICHARD: So that’s an example of the background evidence. Then for the remaining chapters, I take the Bible and I do agree that I think there’s no apocryphal literature that we can confidently date earlier than the text of the New Testament. Not that there weren’t texts before then or some of them might have predated, but we can’t establish that. So I do rule out most apocryphal stuff as being too late. I do have one chapter on extra-Biblical evidence where I cover it all in general. But really when you look at extra-biblical evidence, and even Jesus scholars will admit, the evidence is pretty shitty when it comes down to it.
You have things like, even the Josephus reference and the testimony of Testimonium Flavianum, which everybody agrees has been forged or tampered with.
RICHARD: Even if that were completely 100 per cent authentic, it’s still 96 AD. You can’t establish independence from the Gospels. Like maybe he just read a Gospel and said, “Oh wow, I’d better write about this.” He gives no indication there that he knew any other information or had any other source of information. So it’s useless information as far as history goes. If someone makes something up and then someone else copies it, that doesn’t make it more likely to be true.
RICHARD: So the external evidence is crap. Most Jesus historians will… They won’t put it that way. But you press them on it, you’ll get essentially that answer from them. They’ll try to make it sound nicer than that. But nonetheless… So that leaves the New Testament. I break it down into one chapter on the Epistles, then the Gospels, then the book of Acts. Because each one is different. The kinds of evidence are treated differently in each one.
I show that the evidence in each one, all taken together, all together, is more probable on the theory that Jesus didn’t exist than that he did. So that gives you your consequent probabilities in a Bayesian argument.
Then I have one chapter before all this establishing prior probability. I show certain characteristics of the Jesus story – even from very early on – are more typically characteristics of mythical people than historical ones. So the prior probability already favors his non-existence. I give a rigorous demonstration of that. I don’t just presume that. So I have a chapter on that.
So if the prior probability favors myth, even by a little bit. It doesn’t matter how much, even by a little bit, and all the consequent probabilities favor myth. Then by necessary deductive logic, myth is more probable than historicity.
RICHARD: That’s the structure of the argument. Then, of course, the debates over method hopefully will already have begun with the first volume and hopefully will be resolved eventually before the second volume or by the second volume. That leaves the debates over the facts and the estimates of probability. So then I expect debate and that’s fine. But we need to have those debates. That’s the point of my project. It’s doing no one any service to not have these debates to just dismiss the argument as not even worth considering.
RICHARD: Which is done even by professional historians. I even explain in the first book that I get it. I understand why. I have one in my examples as I have this problem with pyramidiots. Ever since I wrote this article in Skeptical Inquirer, ages and ages ago about Fox News’ really shitty, deceitful program, “news program” about aliens in the pyramids. Ever since I wrote that.
I just wrote it as a journalist. I called the people who were interviewed and did analysis of the show and quoted the people what they said about it and things.
I did research the people that were on and read their writings. Just reported as a journalist, not as an Egyptologist. Nevertheless, because I did that… I don’t know why these kooks are reading Skeptical Inquirer. But anyway, I guess because they’re pursuing aliens in the pyramids.
I get kooks who are have some weird, fucked up, bizarre crack pot theory about the pyramids and want my opinion on it. “Please, won’t you read my 1,000 page manuscript?”
RICHARD: Or “This completely refutes you.” But it’s usually not even that. It’s usually just, “I have really good evidence here. You really should look at this. It’s much better than the Fox thing.”
LUKE: [laughing] Yeah.
RICHARD: So I get that a lot. There’s no way. I don’t even have time to read these things. It’s not even worth my time to look at them. I don’t even bother. So I tell them, “You get even one tiny piece of this published in a peer review journal and then come back and then talk to me.” Or an academic press. It could be a book and academic press. That’s completely legitimate and correct behavior. That’s how historians should behave. That’s the problem with criticism that I’ve made before about pro-myth community: that they’re outside of academia.
They act like outsiders and mavericks and accuse historians of all these awful things. Then defend these theories in a fairly sloppy, often inaccurate way.
So that when a historian comes along and picks up one of these books and looks through it, he can tell immediately this is inadequate. That it’s so sub-par that it’s not worth his time to continue reading.
RICHARD: The fallacy is, of course, assuming that if it’s badly argued, therefore it’s false. But what else can they do? They don’t know that. So in a way, a lot of this amateur myth defense stuff is hurting their own… They’re shooting themselves in the foot, in a sense.
They’re essentially guaranteeing that historians aren’t going to take you seriously. In fact, you’re making it worse. Because the historians will read their stuff, not take it seriously, and then not listen to any other stuff.
Like Doherty. I think Doherty’s stuff is pretty good. It’s just short of Ph.D. quality. Not quite Ph.D. quality, but it’s up there. Certainly I know PhDs in history who have written books that are worse than his: methodologically and factually. So, even at worst, he’s in good company, right?
But people won’t even read his book because they’ve read some other book – I won’t name names – that they see as complete crap. So they assume it all is.
RICHARD: The same thing has happened with Wells. Wells wrote many books on this subject. But he’s not an expert in ancient history. So he even got things wrong. That weren’t even relevant to the debate that he was getting wrong. He just wasn’t making the best case for it. He was making the wrong case for it, in many ways. So, when you read something like Robert Van Vorst’s “Evidence for Jesus”. It’s like “Evidence for Jesus outside the New Testament” or something like that. I can’t remember the exact title. He has a few pages on the myth claim.
It’s mostly focused on Wells and a couple of mythers from the 1930′s or something. I think that’s like… 1930′s is so freaking obsolete that it’s… Why are you even paying attention to that?
RICHARD: There was this whole debate back in the ’20′s and ’30′s … It may have started even earlier than that. Where there are a lot of academics coming out arguing the myth theory. They were right about a lot of things. But they were wrong about a lot of things. So the historians – the other historians – looked at it, then showed they’re wrong about the thing they’re wrong about and said, “Oh, so it’s crap. We can dismiss it.” Then didn’t even really pay attention the things they were saying right.
So there was this assumption that was built up and passed on and on and on. So the historians today assume that “Oh, that was refuted 80 years ago.” No… Well, it wasn’t technically even refuted then. A lot of problems with it were exposed, but that doesn’t constitute a complete refutation.
But that stuff isn’t even the myth theory that’s being defended today. So it’s not even the same theory. So it’s a double fallacy. Van Vorst does that where he gives “these are the reasons why.” I analyze that in my book. Showing that the reasons he gives aren’t even strong reasons – even as they are – much less applicable to current myth theory.
That’s the problem I run into. But I keep saying this because I think they’re not intrinsically wrong to be doing this. Because I think someone in the historical community was and has been obligated to do what I’m doing.
RICHARD: Which is sweep away all the bullshit and error and stuff and get something rigorous and factually correct. Then start the argument from there.
RICHARD: And update it, modernize it. So, no one else is doing it. So my fans got together to pay me to do it. And I’m happy to do it. So, that’s where I am.
LUKE: You’re saying it’s hard to blame historians for not taking the Jesus myth theory correctly when all they’ve had to read are poorly argued Jesus myth theories. Not in peer review literature. Not from academic presses.
RICHARD: Yeah, you’re totally right. Of course, it’s one of those examples where you can’t really have a peer reviewed article on the subject. Because anything you say on it is going to open 10 million questions. So any peer reviewer will say, “Well, you don’t address this, this, and the other.” You’ll point out, “Well, there’s no way I could do that in under 10,000 words.”
LUKE: It’s hard to get started.
RICHARD: Yeah, yeah. There’s this sort of contradiction in the publication methodology where no one will publish an article longer than 10, 000 words. Yet, some of these theories can’t be argued in less than 10, 000 words. There are a few exceptions. A few journals who will publish long things. But usually you have to be a prestigious scholar already. It’s usually in Europe, too, where these things appear. So that’s the conundrum for that thing.
But there is a solution… This has been recognized, not just on this subject, but on many subjects. The solution is the academic monograph. So there are academic presses that will publish a book. That is exactly the purpose of it is: this is too long to be a peer-reviewed article. So let’s publish it as a book.
RICHARD: So that’s what I’m pursuing to do. Hopefully that will make it. All these academic presses… Any one I get into, they will have a peer review process, just like for an article. So it is the same as writing and publishing a really long article. That’s what’s going to happen at this point.
LUKE: Well, I can’t wait. Richard, thanks very much for your time.
RICHARD: Sure. Glad to be here.