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Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus Hardcover – Apr 24 2012
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"[C]arefully exposes what happens when sound methodology meets biblical studies. . . . Proving History is a brilliant lesson in the proper proportioning of belief to evidence. Even minimal attention to Bayesian probability theory reveals just how much of Jesus scholarship confuses ‘possibly true’ with ‘probably true.’ The only miracle Richard Carrier has left to explain is why so few appreciate that extraordinary claims require extraordinary support."
-Dr. Malcolm Murray, Author of The Atheist’s Primer
"Carrier applies his philosophical and historical training to maximum effect in outlining a case for the use of Bayes’s Theorem in evaluating biblical claims. Even biblical scholars, who usually are not mathematically inclined, may never look at the ‘historical Jesus’ the same way again."
-Dr. Hector Avalos, Professor of religious studies, Iowa State University, and author of , The End of Biblical Studies
About the Author
Richard C. Carrier, an independent scholar with a doctorate in ancient history from Columbia University, is the author of Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith; Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed; and Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. He has also contributed chapters to The End of Christianity, edited by John W. Loftus; Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth, edited by R. Joseph Hoffmann; The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus; and The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave, edited by Robert Price and Jeffery Lowder.
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The present volume argues, and argues quite persuasively that historians should employ Bayes's Theorem in their work and of course that includes work on the historical Jesus. Regardless of what you think about that subject, if you are a thinking person, I think you should read this book. If you care about how we know what we know and how likely your beliefs are to be correct you should read this book. In that regard it is excellent. It does have a fairly narrow focus but that focus is on something that has incredibly wide application.
I'm just a lay person interested in science, history, and philosophy among other things. I'm not a professor or specialist in any relevant fields. I found this book an incredibly helpful guide to rigorous thought. This book is definitely not for everyone. Sometimes the author talks too much, but the points are valid and you just need to work through them. This is not light reading, although it is written in a way to be accessible to intelligent readers. You must be willing to put in some work if you are not already well versed in the theory.
I can't wait for the follow up volume where Dr. Carrier actually applies all this to the subject of a historical Jesus. I've now read several of Carrier's books and seen him on some video clips. He's a very articulate man and always seems to have something brilliant to say. I admit that I'm a fan.
Highly recommended to serious readers.
Carrier does not set forth a view of the historical Jesus in this volume. Rather, his goal is to "present a new method that solves the problem... so progress can finally be made in the field of Jesus studies (p.15)". His new method is Bayes's Theorem (BT). One need not be an expert in mathematics or even statistics to follow along in the book: a basic understanding of multiplication, division, and fractions will suffice. However, even if your eyes tend to glaze over once Carrier begins to plug in some numbers in the formula, he still adequately conveys conceptually the arguments he is defending.
The main arguments that an amateur reader like myself can take away from Carrier's work are the following:
1) Contrary to what some (most recently, Bart Ehrman) say, history IS a science. "The fact that historical theories rest on far weaker evidence relative to scientific theories, and as a result achieve a far lower degree of certainty, is a difference only in degree, not in kind (p 48)." Thus, when evaluating historical claims and evaluating when the evidence should cause us to believe the claim, history, like science, is Bayesian.
2) Precision is not necessary to apply Bayes's Theorem. "Rules of thumb" will work just fine and be accurate enough for all historical inquiry.
3) Rather than increasing the amount of disagreement among historians due to quibbling over probabilities, BT will actually expose historians' biases and force them to argue for their premises.
4) All current historical methods in Jesus studies (arguments from evidence, arguments to the best explanation, etc..) reduce to Bayes's Theorem. In other words, whether or not something really is the "best explanation" can only be determined by running the probabilities through BT.
5) Current historical Jesus criteria have failed to solve what Carrier calls the "Threshold Problem". In other words, do any of the historical Jesus criteria (dissimilarity, embarrassment, multiple attestation, etc...) in and of themselves tell the historical whether the claim is to be believed? Only by applying BT, argues Carrier.
I highly recommend this book. You need not agree everything Richard Carrier has ever written to recognize that this work is a great contribution to the field of Jesus studies. If it does nothing more than force current scholars in the field on all sides of the debate to abandon the unwarranted certitude many employ to their conclusions and put all arguments through the same, objective test then this book will have served its purpose.
Carrier wastes no time before describing the moribund state of current historical Jesus studies. He cites various analyses which conclude that the recent `method of criteria' fail to produce a consensus. "The entire field of Jesus studies has been left without any valid method". The reason being either invalid criteria, invalid application or a `Threshold Problem' involving the number & weight of criteria and their significance.
THE CONSEQUENCE of this FAILURE is the current multiplicity of plausible Jesus types which abound in the literature. Carrier cites Jesus the Jewish Cynic Sage, Rabbinical Holy Man (or Devoted Pharisee, or Heretical Essene, etc.), Political Revolutionary, Zealot Activist, Apocalyptic Prophet. Messianic Pretender, as well as many other more exotic contenders.
"When everyone picks up the same method, applies it to the same facts, and gets a different result, we can be certain that that method is invalid and should be abandoned."
THE SOLUTION is the application of Bayes's Theorem (BT).
CHAPTER 2: THE BASICS
In WHY HISTORY REQUIRES EXPERTISE, Carrier describes four stages of historic analysis. Textual, literary, source and only last, is historical analysis proper. He then sets down a set of 12 core epistemological assumptions. THE AXIOMS OF HISTORICAL METHOD and discusses them in turn with some illustrative examples mostly derived from ancient times. These are then followed by 12 RULES OF HISTORICAL METHOD which are simply stated without individual comment.
CHAPTER 3: INTRODUCING BAYES'S THEOREM
WHEN DID THE SUN GO OUT? is an interesting example from the Gospels that Carrier analyses both historically and scientifically and then contrasts with a similar hypothetical event from 1983, for the purpose of extolling the different evidentiary probabilities involved. He also introduces the question of lack of evidence or silence from expected sources. Finally concluding that this is "a slam-dunk Argument from Silence" with respect to the nonhistoricity of the Gospel account.
FROM SCIENCE TO HISTORY begins the discussion of BT: "all valid historical reasoning is described by Bayes's Theorem". A gentle nonmathematical exposition canvassing a variety of historical scientific disciplines to purely historical. WHAT IS BAYES'S THEOREM applies more lubricant until at last pg.50 exposes the reader to "this rather daunting equation:", which I shall spare you. There follows immediately a translation "into English" and several pages of explanation where prior probability and what Carrier refers to as consequent probability are discussed.
A BAYESIAN ANALYSIS OF THE DISAPPEARING SUN re-examines the Gospel and 1983 (now assumed fully observed) examples by employing the `daunting equation' in thorough detail with the unsurprising result that the simple arithmetic yields Gospel event 0.01%, 1983 99.9%. As an introduction to BT methodology this is a painless, interesting and instructive exercise and should cause no problem for anyone with a genuine interest in the subject.
WHY BAYES'S THEOREM? further discusses the advantages of employing this methodology and then answers some initial reservations which Carrier has clearly been exposed to over the years.
But what has math to do with history? But math is hard. But history isn't that precise.
Carrier's reply to these legitimate concerns are fulsome and reasonable as he patiently explains the whys & wherefors.
MECHANICS OF BAYES'S THEOREM is "the most math-challenging section of the book". In truth there is very little more in the way of equations, and even then merely a mild extension of the forgoing. Rather there follows an extensive exposition of usage. That is mechanics of prior probability, mechanics of consequent probability, a Venn diagram, consequent probability and historical contingency, the role of conditional probability, the problem of subjective priors, arguing a fortiori, mediating disagreement and a canon of probabilities.
CHAPTER 4: BAYESIAN ANALYSIS OF HISTORICAL METHODS
As specified Carrier proceeds to use BT to analyse;
The Argument From Evidence (AFE)
The Argument to the Best Explanation (ABE)
The Hypothetico-Deductive Method (HDM)
Then is given a Formal Proof of Universal Applicability which is quite brief, except for the caveats and explanatory discussion, but eventually all is well. Next follows,
Bayesian Analysis of the `Smell Test', and the most fun of all,
Bayesian Analysis of the Argument from Silence.
CHAPTER 5: BAYESIAN ANALYSIS OF HISTORICITY CRITERIA
Carrier identifies "at least eighteen distinctive criteria", such as Dissimilarity, Embarrassment, Coherence, etc.
Embarrassment receives the most extensive treatment and falls under the BT axe for a variety of reasons. There follows a SPECIFIC INADEQUACY OF THE CRITERION OF EMBARRASSMENT involving a detailed examination of; Jesus' crucifixion by Romans, Jesus birth in Nazareth, John's baptism of Jesus, Jesus' ignorance of the future, Did Jesus know he was the Son of Man?, Jesus betrayal by Judas Iscariot, And so on ...
The remainder of the criteria fall with increasing rapidity, as do some OTHER CRITERIA.
However, a BAYESIAN ANALYSIS OF EMULATION CRITERIA survive (with modification) and prove most instructive when "Daniel in the lion's den" becomes "Jesus in the empty tomb".
Finally in BAYESIAN DEMONSTRATIONS OF AHISTORICITY "... at first glance it seems surely "Jesus existed" would win out as the most probably hypothesis on BT. In my next volume (On the Historicity of Jesus Christ) I'll reveal that on second glance, that conclusion is not so obvious, and might even be wrong".
CHAPTER 6: THE HARD STUFF
The final chapter addresses "deeper issues regarding the application and applicability of Bayes's Theorem generally". It contains some new maths but is mostly concerned with technical aspects of BT and its use in historical research.
The book is well written with a clear and logical progression of argument. The mathematical development could hardly be more benign and there are many illustrative and entertaining examples to elucidate the details of both methodology and application. A brief Appendix provides a handy summary of the maths. The extensive notes constitute more than 10% of the book and there is a useful index. From a technical and logical perspective it very adequately covers the ground required to underpin Carrier's next volume.
Dr. Carrier does a fine job of showing how Bayes's Theorem (BT) can advance the discussion of historical interpretation by requiring everyone to be transparent about their reasoning for believing various claims. When historians consider something 'unlikely', 'somewhat likely', 'very likely', 'almost certain', these judgments are inherently mathematical and can be converted to numbers and plugged into BT for refinement. Proving History contains a lot of practical advice on how to go about doing that while creating a margin for error given that ancient history always involves arguing from less data/evidence than we would like. Carrier stresses that BT 1) isn't about conclusively determining 'truth', since there is ALWAYS a chance that any hypothesis is wrong (BT can provide an estimate of the likelihood that it is wrong, but cannot determine conclusively if the hypothesis is wrong in the specific case under review) and 2) BT is always based on what we know now, and any application of BT can be modified with any future evidence.
With regards to the New Testament, this volume makes very few specific claims. There is a running example through the text of whether we have enough evidence to believe that the sun went dark for three hours around the time of the crucifixion, which leads to some interesting discussion about things like 'when is an argument from silence valid/convincing?' (I'd always thought arguments from silence were inherently weak, but Carrier's approach to BT suggests some ways to determine when such an argument really does carry weight). Starting in chapter 5, the book does start using a lot of examples from Jesus Studies, but the goal isn't to put forth any theories or conclusions, but just to evaluate the methods currently used in the quest for the historical Jesus and show how some are invalid, while others have inherent problems that could be solved by using BT instead. So while the book takes on the search for the historical Jesus movement, it stops well short of taking on the Gospels. For this, we are to await a follow-up volume.
'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'. One of the interesting facets of BT is that it is able to estimate how much evidence is needed to overcome the extraordinary nature of the claim. While it's possible for an extraordinary claim to be true without leaving enough evidence to warrant belief in it, BT doesn't claim to get at the truth, but to assign logical probabilities. While it is a strength of BT that it does leave room for the extraordinary, and given sufficient evidence, can even support an extraordinary claim, this approach doesn't leave room for mystical or faith-based reasoning. Someone convinced that faith-based reasoning is sound could read all of this, agree with everything in principle, and declare 'of course it's all improbable, that's because it's all miraculous!' But the quest for the historical Jesus is not inherently faith-based - in fact most approaches involve sifting through the Gospels in an attempt to separate fact from fiction, so they don't start from a position that 'everything in the Bible is true', so taking a BT approach to the issue is hardly more problematic for believers than the entire enterprise itself is. I'd imagine that Christians who are engaged with critical scholarship on the Bible will find this more interesting than those who don't read such things.
All in all, Dr. Carrier convinced me that Bayes's Theorem is a powerful tool worth mastering, and I look forward to his next book.