They have some talent at public speaking and debate. Within a couple years of each other, they will each release a large book detailing their historical methods and applying them to the Historical Jesus question. They are also both well-known advocates for their respective worldviews – Christianity and naturalism – the two dominant worldviews of American academia.
Licona opens by explaining historical method as he sees it, taking basically the William Lane Craig approach that you are probably familiar with from Craig’s debates about the historical Jesus. He then notes that Richard Carrier on his website seems to have endorsed a Bayesian approach to historical method. Licona says that Bayesian methods can’t work because they must always begin with a prior probability that is “subjective.” (I wonder what Licona thinks of the McGrews’ Bayesian defense of the resurrection in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, or of Craig resorting to Bayes’ theorem to argue for the possibility of knowing miracles occur in his debate with Bart Ehrman?) I’m sure this only confused the audience, for Licona did not explain Bayes’ theorem, even in a nutshell.
Licona cites Paul’s account of his own encounter with Jesus and Paul’s account of three group appearances of Jesus as evidence that Jesus was seen alive after his crucifixion. Actually, Licona often speaks as if Paul’s encounter with Jesus and the group appearances of Jesus were themselves facts to be accounted for by the historian, rather than noticing that it is Paul’s accounts of these events that are the facts to be accounted for by the historian.
Licona also argues that Paul’s language indicated that he thought Jesus had been resurrected in his physical body, which was transformed into an immortal body.
He then says that on these data, the hypothesis ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ has good explanatory scope and power. He says it also does not make any ad-hoc assumptions, for he is not assuming that God raised Jesus from the dead, and even if he were then this wouldn’t be an ad-hoc assumption because he thinks there is good evidence that God exists.
But then he seems to contradict himself by saying that the the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead does not lack plausibility like you’d think it would. Why? Because it’s only implausible if you assume Jesus rose from the dead naturally. It’s not an implausible hypothesis, he says, if you assume God exists and that God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead.
Even if we ignore the question of whether or not God exists, the hypothesis that God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead is a whopper. If you’re allowed to take on board that kind of assumption, almost literally anything could be ‘plausible.’ I could just as easily say “If God exists and God wanted the city of Delphi to defend itself with lightning bolts and magical spells, then it’s not at all implausible that the city of Delphi defended itself with lightning bolts and magical spells as reported by Herodotus.”
Nobody would take my argument seriously, and for good reason.
Licona’s argument makes use of another common piece of apologetic sophistry which claims that the opponents of the resurrection hypothesis reject it merely because they are naturalists. But no. One does not need to deny the supernatural altogether to have good reason to reject the miracles particular to the Christian tradition. After all, Licona does not deny the supernatural, but he does not appear impressed by the miracle claims about magical saviors from hundreds of other religious traditions.
Carrier notes that if he said he owned a car, most people would be happy to believe him, because they know people like him often own cars. But if Carrier said he owned a nuclear missile, people would not believe him until he presented some pretty damn compelling evidence, because people like Carrier do not generally own nuclear missiles. And if Carrier said he owned an interstellar spacecraft, it would take an extraordinary amount of evidence to back that claim up, because nobody on Earth owns such a thing as far as we know, and such a device does not fit with what we know about the state of Earth-bound technology.
Carrier could produce photographs and even videos of his interstellar spacecraft, but even then we wouldn’t believe him, for we know it’s more likely those things were produced with CGI and PhotoShop than for them to actually exist. He could even show us his interstellar spacecraft in person, and we would still be quite doubtful, because we know David Copperfield has pulled off more impressive illusions. He could even have us board a large metallic spacecraft and take us on what appeared to be a trip around the galaxy, and we might still suspect it was an impressive and elaborate simulation like the ones you can ride at a theme park. Carrier would have to present incredible evidence to convince us he owned an interstellar spacecraft.
But then, “we have no more evidence for miraculous resurrections on our planet than we have for starships on our planet.” Human resurrection from the dead just does not happen to our knowledge, and it contradicts everything we know about biology and chemistry and so on.
Carrier invites us to assume Jesus’ body really went missing. But bodies go missing all the time, and we never conclude they rose from the dead. Why? Because usually it means somebody took the body, or it rotted away, or we’re checking the wrong grave, or something. These things are way more likely than resurrection to explain an empty tomb, and we all know it.
The same goes for appearances of the dead. People often experience dead friends and relatives, especially when under emotional distress. They even talk to the dead and their experiences are so compelling they swear they are real. This happens all the time. What doesn’t happen is people rising bodily from the dead.
Even the Shaker cults and the Cargo cults claim to have experienced visitations on mass, an event Licona said was “extremely rare.” Maybe, but we know it happens, and bodily resurrection does not.
Carrier cites a biography of St. Geneveve, written only 10 years after her death, which claims her prayers righted capsized ships, that she performed miraculous healings, and that people who stole from her got sick, and that she cursed a tree, causing monsters to spring from it and breathe a foul stench on the nearby people. So legends do arise in quick order.
Carrier goes on to cite many other historical documents which claim eyewitnesses say all kinds of absurd miracles – miracles we all deny, and for good reason. The conclusion is this: We know that historical documents and multiple witnesses make false, legendary claims all the time. We also know dead humans don’t rise from the dead. So when confronted with religious documents claiming their hero rose from the dead, which is the more plausible explanation? The answer is obvious.
Carrier also notes that in addition to all this, we have good reasons to be suspicious of yet another story about a dying and rising god offering salvation. Such stories had been told about Romulus, Osiris, and others before the Christian period, and were well known during the time of Jesus. It seems plausible this was a story template adopted by Christians following the apparent death of their hero. What would we think of someone who argued that unlike the similar stories about Osiris and other dying and rising gods, the story about Romulus was true?
Carrier also draws on the psychology of religion. We already know that people who are prone to visions and hallucinations tend to congregate around religious people and talk to imaginary friends. So, again: we know that happens. And we have every reason to believe bodily resurrection of dead people does not happen. So when we read Paul’s story, what is the more likely explanation?
Carrier then argues that the idea of Jesus appearing to only believers and one outsider (Paul) makes little sense if Jesus wants to save the world. He could easily have appeared to Roman leaders, people in America, people in China. Indeed, he could have appeared before the crowd at Licona and Carrier, and settled the debate. Carrier says, “I would [give such appearances] if I were in his position, and I can’t be more compassionate than God…”
During cross-examination, Licona shows himself to be highly credulous about supernatural claims. He doesn’t even want to admit that most such claims are legendary or false, and in fact says that if Bill Craig says he saw Richard Carrier get into an interstellar spaceship, his testimony alone would be enough to believe that Richard Carrier owned an interstellar spaceship.
That if Mike Licona phoned a few different people…
And they confirmed that Richard Carrier had just boarded his interstellar starcraft…
Then that would be good reason to believe…
That Richard Carrier owned an interstellar spacecraft.
I watched this part of the debate four times. It totally happened.
The rest of the debate was kind of a blur for me. I have nothing to say about it.
Though I do remember one part where our two debaters were comparing the size of their cocks. Or maybe it was dissertations. I can’t recall.
Update: Carrier Responds
I asked Carrier if I had misunderstood him in the above article, and he gave me permission to post his reply:
The condition he set was a reliable confirmation that I had traveled 1500 miles in ten minutes (requiring transport well in excess of Mach 12, esp. counting time to disembark and walk to the venue etc.–he then added a Mach 6 transit of another 3000 more miles an hour before that). And he was talking about “evidence like” the case he mentioned, and of the specific claim he described, i.e. not the “interstellar” aspect but just a super-fast-moving levitating transport. Since that is all he was talking about. That was all I was agreeing to. Likewise, he agreed to interrogating them to rule out alternatives (he just didn’t go into detail–we thus both granted for the sake of argument that those details would be satisfied).
In general he’s right (after my correction of his mistaken reliance on a single witness, and his neglect of testing of alternative theories). It is certainly possible for several personal conversations to be sufficiently extraordinary evidence for interstellar-spaceship-owning–provided the witnesses are independent, you interrogated them to your satisfaction, you have considerable background evidence of their integrity, their testimony verifies the fact, and nothing suspicious occurs in this process (e.g. they don’t sound the same as you remember, or say things you take as odd for them, or the scene they describe sounds like a set-up, etc.). On those conditions the probability of that collection of witnesses being duped or lying would be extraordinarily low, lower in fact than the probability of my actually having such a transport. Of course we left aside quibbles such as whether that would be sufficient to prove I *owned* the thing rather than just hitching a ride; but that was his point about emphasizing evidence “like” the example he gave–certainly he would agree that we’d need more for each particular added detail to the claim, like ownership (or star traversing).
Hence you *far* overstate my argument in your previous summary. You give the impression I used the examples you did, but I didn’t. For example, the “theme park trick” is too absurd to credit–that is not warranted skepticism. That’s dogmatic skepticism. It’s irrational. Unless you actually observed evidence such a trick was (or could be) underway, there would be less warrant to assume that hypothesis than to concede you went into space. This is because the nature of that experience would be wholly beyond any present theme park tech to reproduce. For a perfect example, watch the series Stargate: Universe, from the pilot forward. The computer programmer (Eli) is a perfect philosophical stand-in for what it would take to be rationally convinced the government owned an interstellar spaceship. Notice how stupid he would sound if he kept rejecting that conclusion with the “theme park trick” counter hypothesis. Now think how much evidence would be enough for him to rationally persuade you, if you met him here on earth, without even showing you a single photo or other proof: a sufficient number of trusted corroborating independent eyewitnesses (himself and, say, Dr. Rush and Colonel Young, granting that you know all three men remarkably well and thus have abundant background evidence as to their sanity, integrity, etc., i.e. as well as you know them as a viewer of the show, and granting you can freely and critically interrogate them to verify agreements on details, etc.) would be enough to convince you of at least a greater than 50% chance he’s right. Think of the three people on earth you trust the most (and think of why you do), and imagine every one of them visited that ship as those guys did, and you could question them freely (and critically) to verify this. Would you honestly not believe them after that? I would. And you should, too. (at least provisionally, but all knowledge is provisional).
I seem to recall making the distinction in conversation later between “interstellar” and merely flying off. Like the detail of “owning” vs. hitching, that was besides the point given his specific example. It would take far less evidence to be warranted in believing I stepped into a levitating craft that flew me out of sight at Mach 12, than to further believe that craft could traverse star systems. Hence if I could interview several of my closest friends who all witnessed Licona doing the former, that would be sufficient to believe them–on that one specific claim. I just don’t get to conduct that interrogation of ancient Christian witnesses, nor do I have any credible background evidence regarding their integrity, sanity, reliability, etc., such as I do people I personally know. The added detail of star traversing could be supported only by interrogation of those witnesses if they actually went along on the trip, too (otherwise, how would they know?). Hence my Stargate example.
Although read my treatment of this same topic in The Christian Delusion (or better, also the longer treatment online in Why I Am Not a Christian): there is still a huge difference between interstellar spacecraft and supernatural resurrection–as the former is actually possible even with known tech (it’s just unlikely given the expense involved), whereas we don’t have any background evidence confirming even the possibility of the latter. Which creates a far greater probability gap for new evidence to overcome. I present the formal math in TCD. Which, BTW, is my answer to Licona’s mocking “does it glow?” request for what counts as extraordinary evidence: literally, an extraordinary claim is a claim that is by definition extraordinarily improbable, which logically entails the only evidence that can verify such a claim is evidence whose alternative explanation is even less probable than that, which entails such evidence must also be extraordinary, in fact exactly as extraordinary (or more), so defined.
Thus you might be confused about what counts as extraordinary evidence. All that that means is extraordinarily improbable on any other explanation. Thus, in principle, even a single person’s merely verbal testimony can be extraordinary evidence–provided it is extraordinarily improbable that they are incorrect. But, yes, it’s getting testimony that is that reliable that’s the trick. You are right that Licona was over-credulous–hence my correction of him. He mistakenly thought a single once-trusted witness being incorrect would be extraordinarily improbable, when you and I know that’s almost never the case. And the conditions in which it would be the case would indeed be describable as extraordinary.
We could have (had we time) gone into more detail about what he would actually need to verify the reliability of his friends’ and wife’s testimony, e.g. the first alternative hypothesis to test would be a scam involving two doubles of me, hired to pose as me, and perform some extraordinarily expensive illusion work, all to prove a point at a debate in Kansas the opposite of the point I was actually making–a behavior itself extraordinarily improbable, as is my having the resources to carry out such a trick (even finding two doubles of me, much less consummate magicians and millions of dollars in budgets to spend). Some basic probing questions of his three named witnesses would be sufficient to verify that this alternative hypothesis would be, indeed, extraordinarily improbable, exactly what makes such testimony into the required extraordinary evidence to verify the original extraordinary claim.
It is mathematically mistaken to say that spaceships (though, again, we were really just talking about superfast levitating transports in that exchange, not the ownership or star trekking aspects) are less frequent than double-double inexplicably acquired-and-spent multimillion-dollar contrary-to-my-every-motive interstate trickery, therefore the latter would always remain the best explanation. Indeed, I doubt it could even be validly said that such transports are inherently less probable than such tricks (given all the conditions against the latter just stated, I would rank the ships more likely). But that’s besides the point. Since it isn’t the frequency of the phenomena that is measured by prior probability, but the frequency of being mistaken/duped about such vs. not mistaken and not duped about such, which depends on the background evidence he has pertaining to the witnesses’ reliability etc. and the information he gets out of them on interrogation. I don’t think Licona understands this. But we didn’t have time to explore that point.
In my next book I use several examples to explore the mathematical logic of this. For example, if someone claims they were struck by lightning five times in their life, the prior probability they are telling the truth is *not* the probability of being struck by lightning five times, but the probability that someone who claims such a thing would be telling the truth. In other words, how often such claims (the reference class) are caused by someone actually being struck by lightning five times, in ratio to how often such claims are caused by error, delusion, or lies. Ditto a spaceship (or in the Licona example, a supertransport). The prior probability of a claim such a ship exists is not the probability such a ship exists, but the probability someone who claims to have seen one is not mistaken (whether lying, or hallucinating, or tricked, or what have you). And that probability changes with the nature of the witness, and with the nature of the information obtained from them (in Bayes’ Theorem these are elements of background knowledge, on which prior probability must always be conditioned). And the more witnesses and information, the lower the probability of alternative hypotheses (for three separate people in separate states to have exactly the same hallucination in elaborate corroborated detail is certainly far less than one of them doing so), and again all presuming there is no contrary evidence (e.g. Craig and Habermas claiming to have seen the event in a place where national television should have had video of the event but didn’t–such a suspect state of evidence is more probable on alternative explanations, not less, thus pushing the final epistemic probability in the other direction).
In short, it *is* conceivable to be rationally warranted in believing an extraordinary claim on the kind of evidence Licona concluded with (after I got several qualifications out of him). But we still don’t have anything like that in the case of the resurrection. And yet the resurrection is even *less* believable than the supertransport Licona described, thus requiring even *more* extraordinary evidence, so the fact that it actually has less argues a fortiori against rational belief in the resurrection.
P.S. Note that prior probability is *in part* based on frequency, just not synonymously. Thus, the rarity of spaceships is a factor in ascertaining the prior probability of a claim to see one. It’s just that so is reliability of the source. What makes a claim of seeing a spaceship extraordinary is both the rarity of spaceships *and* the frequency of lies, hallucinations, tricks, errors, etc. which can produce the same claim. One could map out a subordinate Bayesian equation demonstrating this. Which simply reveals the fact that all priors are the outcomes of prior steps of reasoning which must likewise be (at least implicitly) Bayesian. Thus questioning the relationship between different frequency estimates (spaceships, lies, etc.) would be answered by running more Bayesian analysis, at a more fundamental level.
My Reply to Carrier
I wrote back:
Thanks for clarifying. The dialogue was messy, and I thought you were agreeing to more of Licona’s story than you actually were.
However, in this email you seem to indicate that if Licona really was talking about you hitching a ride on an interstellar spacecraft, then the report of a few independent witnesses could indeed be sufficient to establish such a claim (provided they were highly reliable witnesses, their claimed observations support the story that you rode an interstellar spacecraft, and so on), and so I have not misunderstood your position after all, even if I understood what you were committing to at that moment in the debate.
I still find this astonishing. Is it not still the case that a few super-reliable witnesses are not enough to establish that you actually rode in an interstellar spacecraft? An interstellar spacecraft is so incredibly implausible thing to find on Earth given our most reliable scientific knowledge to date, but our knowledge of humans allows for some plausible explanations of how their reports might be false.
For example, perhaps the three witnesses have decided to conspire to tell this lie, the first lie they have told me in all my years of knowing them. After all, they know their testimony will have incredible impact on me because of their past trustworthiness. And I have no reason at all to believe that these three people even know each other, let alone that they have conspired to lie to me as a practical joke. So despite my most rigorous interrogation of them, I have every reason to suspect they are independent witnesses and they are telling the truth just as they always have.
We can invent other such restraints, but it still seems to be that this hypothesis is a more plausible explanation for the data available to me than the hypothesis that you actually rode an interstellar spacecraft across the country before going to a debate with Mike Licona.
Do you think I’m wrong? Or have I misunderstood what you’re claiming? Or have I misunderstood the nature of our apparent disagreement?
June 30, 2010 Update
[Re: "the dialogue was messy"]
Yes, there were a lot of imprecisions and vaguaries. But open dialogue is always that way. You can only have a chance of avoiding it if you do this sort of thing in writing, and even more so if you run drafts through third party review. Which I like. It just isn’t what that venue was about.
[Re: "Is it not still the case that a few super-reliable witnesses are not enough to establish that you actually rode in an interstellar spacecraft?"]
All it requires is that they be sufficiently reliable (both as persons and in respect their specific testimony). The more reliable, the less probable error etc. will be (by definition). Thus, at some point, reliability can match any improbability. It would be fallacious to presume this was not possible a priori. You have to prove it case by case.
And the reason having independent witnesses is important is that their probabilities multiply, hence if the probability of error for a witness is x, then having two independent witnesses gives a P(error) = x^2; three gives x^3; etc. Geometric progression. Thus multiple independent witnesses produces massive increases in reliability very quickly. Whether that’s enough will depend on their independent reliabilities, and the improbability of the thing being claimed.
[Re: "An interstellar spacecraft is so incredibly implausible thing to find on Earth given our most reliable scientific knowledge to date, but our knowledge of humans allows for some plausible explanations of how their reports might be false."]
Yes. But when all the “plausible explanations” are extraordinarily improbable, then they themselves become “incredibly implausible.” Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Again, it’s fallacious to presume a priori that there is always a “non-extraordinary” explanation of any testimony. It’s too easy to imagine examples where that’s never the case; and I know many real-world cases, too. Hence when two explanations are competing to explain a testimony, and both are extraordinarily improbable, it doesn’t take much to tip the balance into warranted belief. In other words, plenty of explanations are just as implausible as spaceships, and when that’s all you have, spaceships become plausible. QED.
Hence stick to the specific example I gave: Eli, Rush, and Young are very close long-term friends whom you know as intimately as any viewer of SGU would, and they independently report the things that happened to them on that show, and meet your critical interrogations with success. It would be irrational to reject their testimony, because any hypothesis you conjured to explain it away would be less probable than the thing they are reporting.
[Re: "Perhaps three witnesses conspired to lie..."]
Which would be extraordinarily improbable. That’s the point. If it wouldn’t be extraordinarily improbable, then you don’t sufficiently trust those witnesses to begin with; but we are discussing highly trusted witnesses ex hypothesi. Thus your example is besides the point.
Ex hypothesi, we are proposing witnesses who are sufficiently reliable, i.e. you know and trust them well enough to know that the conspiracy you suggest would be less probable than their reports being true.
Remember, to meet the conditions, the lie you propose would have to be extraordinarily elaborate; because, again ex hypothesi, you will have interrogated them independently to your satisfaction–which means you would catch them making things up once you went off book (i.e. asked them things they didn’t anticipate), unless their conspiracy was extraordinarily detailed and well-planned. The more detailed and well-planned, the less probable it is. Hence my stated need for careful critical interrogation as a required condition.
[Re: "After all, they know their testimony will have incredible impact on me because of their past trustworthiness."]
Which would matter if your friends and wife were dicks. But we are presuming ex hypothesi that you know them well enough to know they wouldn’t exploit you this way (unless, again, they had good enough reason, but such a reason would be, again, extraordinarily improbable–just witness that such a “good samaritan best-friend spaceship conspiracy” has never happened before to anyone on record in three thousand years, and you’ll get the idea how rare, hence improbable, such behavior is).
[Re: "And I have no reason at all to believe that these three people even know each other, let alone that they have conspired to lie to me as a practical joke."]
Correct. This data is not in your background knowledge, and warrant only follows the facts known to you. Obviously belief is revisable with new information. But you can’t “presume” seemingly independent witnesses are conspirators when all your available knowledge argues strongly to the contrary. Yes, there is a tiny probability that you are wrong (which having the correct data would reveal). But the question is, how tiny? In the example posited, extraordinarily tiny.
[Re: "So despite my most rigorous interrogation of them, I have every reason to suspect they are independent witnesses and they are telling the truth just as they always have."]
Hence you should believe them.
You seem to be confusing warrant with truth. We have many warranted beliefs that are false. In fact, statistically we must. Of all beliefs that have a warrant sufficient to ensure they are 99% certain, by definition 1 in 100 of those will be false. But that’s why we trust those beliefs–because so few of them are false. Nevertheless, some of them are indeed false–and we will not know they are; we will instead believe them to be true. But we will be warranted in doing so–provided the probability of being wrong is indeed 1 in 100 (i.e. we have done our due diligence in calculating that degree of certainty). No belief is 100% certain–every belief has some small probability of being false, yet beliefs remain warranted (if they didn’t, we shouldn’t believe anything–because anything can be false–hence the absurdity of “radical skepticism”). Pick any probability, say 1 in 100,000. Of all the beliefs you have that are that warranted, 1 in 100,000 of them will still be false. Indeed, if you have only one such belief, it still has a 1 in 100,000 chance of being that one false belief in a hundred thousand.
Hence when talking about warranted belief, the possibility that you could be a victim of a conspiracy “after all” is completely irrelevant. The only relevant question is “How likely is that?” When it’s less likely than the thing being claimed, the thing being claimed is a more likely explanation of the testimony than a conspiracy.
[Re: "We can invent other such restraints, but it still seems to be that this hypothesis is a more plausible explanation for the data available to me than the hypothesis that you actually rode an interstellar spacecraft across the country before going to a debate with Mike Licona."]
Then you must not have any trusted friends or a spouse worth staying married to. That’s sad. But it’s not relevant to what Licona and I were talking about. He was proposing persons whom he knows so extraordinarily well that he knows the probability of their conspiring like this is less probable than my riding a spaceship. And I can attest such persons do exist. Perhaps you haven’t met any yet.
Which does mean we can sometimes be in different states of warrant: I will know things about the witnesses that you do not, hence on the exact same testimony it’s possible I will be warranted in believing but you will not. But we didn’t discuss that aspect of the issue (essentially because Licona chose not to defend any eyewitness testimony–except Paul, whose testimony is not even extraordinary).
To which I replied:
Of course I don’t confuse warrant for truth. Nor is it the case that I don’t know highly trustworthy people. Nor do I assume a priori that testimony could not establish the existence of an interstellar spacecraft.
I agree with basically everything you said. I think our point of disagreement is in our guesstimations of the relevant probabilities. I guesstimate that the probability of error in the consistent testimony of three extremely reliable and apparently independent witnesses is, while extremely low, still slightly higher than the probability that Richard Carrier recently traveled in an interstellar spacecraft.
Not having actual probabilities to plug into the Bayesian analysis, guesstimations are all we have to go by, and our differing guesstimations of these hypothetical probabilities need not imply that one of us is irrational. But I was caught by surprise that our guesstimations of these probabilities was so divergent. And thus my head “a-sploded.” :)
And that is where it stands. Hope ya’ll enjoy the dialogue between two naturalists!
Next post: A Religious Person Defends Atheism