# Bayes Theorem Proves Jesus Existed (And That He Didn’t)

In his shockingly neglected Treatise on Probability, John Maynard Keynes put his finger on the difficulty people have with probability, particularly Bayes’s Theorem:

"No other formula in the alchemy of logic has exerted more astonishing powers. For it has established the existence of God from the premiss of total ignorance; and it has measured with numerical precision the probability the sun will rise tomorrow."

Probability carries with it “a smack of astrology, of alchemy.” Comte, Keynes reminds us, regarded the application of the mathematical calculus of probability as “purement chimérique et, par conséquent, tout à fait vicieuse" ("purely chimerical, and therefore, quite vicious".)

Note the last word, vicious, a word which was laughed off in the mad rush towards the utopia of Quantification an era which Comte, incidentally, and despite his intentions, helped usher in. We are very close to the moment when a number must by law be attached to every judgment of uncertainty.

Therefore, you may not be surprised to learn there is not one, but two books which argue that a fixed, firm number may be put on the proposition, "God exists." The first, by Stephen Unwin, is called The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation That Proves the Ultimate Truth, in which he uses Bayes’s theorem to demonstrate, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God exists.

This is countered by Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus by Richard Carrier, who uses Bayes’s theorem to prove, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God does not exist because Jesus himself never did.

So here we have probability proving two diametrically opposite conclusions. Comte was right: Alchemy, indeed.

Carrier of course has the harder task, and he attacks it with great gusto. He identifies as a mythicist, which he defines as someone who believes the historical Jesus was a myth. Carrier doesn’t just deny the divine Jesus, but asserts that the man called Jesus never existed.

He's convinced Jesus was a first-century creation, invented whole cloth, likely born of a conspiracy to create a new religion. I won’t dig into the details of Carrier’s points—I believe other contributors will be doing that at Strange Notions in the near future. But if you are interested, here is a link to a several-thousand-word essay in which Carrier “takes apart” a minor blog post written by a historian who claims Jesus lived.

On the other hand, an early review of Unwin’s work, which I have read and which is mercifully brief (and in large font with small pages), asks just the right question: “Can you imagine anyone arguing that the existence of evil in the world, given that God exists, is 23% as opposed to 24%, for instance?” Indeed. Too bad this kind of question is not asked in science.

The reviewer also recognized that probability questions have an order. That is, the probability that evil exists given God does is different from the probability that God exists given evil does. This crucial distinction Unwin minds attentively.

The real question is this: how can probability prove a thing and its opposite simultaneously? The answer is simple: the same way logic can prove a thing and its opposite. This does not prove that logic should be lumped with pseudoscience, however. You can’t blame the tool for its misuse.

All arguments of certainty and uncertainty are conditional. For example, is the proposition “Jesus was divine” true? Well, that depends on the evidence. If you say, “Given Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected as related in the Gospels” then the proposition has probability one (i.e., it is true.) But if you say, “Given Jesus was a myth, created as a conspiracy to flummox the Romans and garner tithes” then the proposition has probability zero (i.e., it is false.)

Given still other evidence, the probability the proposition is true may lie between these two extremes. In no case, however, is probability or logic broken. It does explain why focusing on probability is wrong, though.

These authors would help themselves better, and contribute to a more fruitful discussion about Jesus, by explicating the evidence and eschewing unnecessary quantification.

(Image credit: Witty Sparks)

#### Written by Dr. William M. Briggs

Dr. William M. Briggs is an Adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, where he acquired both an M.S. in Atmospheric Science and a Ph.D. in Statistics. In addition to teaching, William works as a consultant with specialties in medicine, the environment, and the philosophy of, and over-certainty in, science. He blogs at wmbriggs.com.

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• Bob

The benefit of Bayes Theorem when doing history is that it forces historians to show their work.

• staircaseghost

"Richard Carrier... uses Bayes’s theorem to prove, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God does not exist because Jesus himself never did."

Does he really present his conclusion that strongly, not simply as "more likely than not", and does he actually argue for it in that book specifically? I thought it was supposed to be part one, with a followup book where the methodology developed in the first part is actually applied.

• Richard Carrier

No, I don't. I don't even argue God does not exist because Jesus did not exist. Or argue that God does not exist at all, in either of my books on the Bayesian analysis of Jesus studies. Nor do I even argue Jesus didn't exist with anything other than a "more likely than not" conclusion, complete with a range of probabilities he existed based on broad margins of error. And that, again, is only in another book, which wasn't named here (not in Proving History, but in On the Historicity of Jesus).

Briggs has clearly been enormously irresponsible in not reading my books before commenting on them, and very shamefully got wrong what they argue, and misrepresented my arguments in them in a matter that is arguably defamatory.

• pasca

Poor baby. Got defamed.

• "So here we have probability proving two diametrically opposite conclusions. Comte was right: Alchemy, indeed."

Of course not, both books are most certainly entering different values into Bayes' theorem and coming up with different results.

I've had great difficulty understanding this post, I have really no idea what his point is. I have my doubts as to whether Dr Briggs read either book. I don't know if he thinks Bayes theorem is innapropriate to this issue. He says it is not broken but also alchemy.

The discussion about evil comes out of nowhere and seems irrelevant.

• Jim (hillclimber)

I also found it very difficult to determine the point of the post. I think that main point is that probabilities can only be computed conditional on some data and some background assumptions, and that it makes no sense to obsess over minor differences in probability estimates when there is not even rough agreement on a data set and/or an inoffensive set of background assumptions. I would certainly agree with that, but that's not a good reason to be dismissive of probabilistic arguments. (I don't think the intent of the OP was to be completely dismissive of probabilistic arguments, but it really does come off that way).

As "Bob" (above) sort of points out, the "value added" by formalizing things in terms of probabilities doesn't necessarily reside in the numerical probability estimates that get churned out, but more often arises from process of formalization itself: that process forces discussions on what the relevant data are, and on what background assumptions are communally acceptable. If the books do that, they are doing something worthwhile.

• NicholasBeriah Cotta

It's a good reason to dismiss probabilistic arguments that bite off more than they can chew I would say.

• Jim (hillclimber)

I agree Nicholas, but the reason to dismiss probabilistic arguments that bite off more than they can chew is: they bite off more than they can chew. That's a separate line of criticism from that provided by the OP, which really only makes general points about probabilistic arguments.

• Richard Carrier

Exactly. If his argument is that I use "probabilistic arguments that bite off more than they can chew," then he needs to show that I actually do so. As in, actually examine the inputs I generate for the Bayesian calculation in On the Historicity of Jesus. Although, if his argument really is that an argument for historicity is a "probabilistic argument that bites off more than it can chew," then he would be admitting that we should be historicity agnostics and thus no longer be certain Jesus existed. Otherwise, he can't claim this is a "probabilistic argument that bites off more than it can chew." He would then have to claim that unarguable probabilities can be entered into the equation that get a result of "probably historical." Because if he can't produce any unarguable probabilities that can be entered into the equation that get a result of "probably historical," then he cannot logically claim to know that Jesus is probably historical.

• staircaseghost

"I have my doubts as to whether Dr Briggs read either book."

A cursory 5 minutes with google tells me that Unwin concludes the odds that God exists at 67%, not "with probability one minus epsilon".

And add me to the list of people baffled as to why this 2 year old article was reposted.

• Ray Vorkin

And add me to the list of people baffled as to why this 2 year old article was reposted.

Desperation for new material? knowing that most persons reading the article would find it as confusing as it was the first time around!....You know?....baffle our brains with bull and we won't notice the subterfuge.

• Ye Olde Statistician

Dr. Briggs is very much adamant that probability as such does not exist, only probability given a model and evidence. That is, you never have P(X), only P(X|M and E). For example, the probability that a heat of steel made in a certain electric arc furnace exceeds 90 ppm nitrogen cannot be calculated without some model. If the applied model is a normal distribution, you get one value. If it is an extreme value distribution, you get another. The evidence might be one hundred past heats of the same alloy, from which a mean and a variance are calculated and a histogram eyeballed for resemblance to Gauss. But there are also the assumptions that these 100 heats represent what the furnace will continue to produce in the future, despite possible changed in the ambient conditions, in the furnace conditions, in the nitrogen already present in the scrap steel being melted, and so on. One doubts very much that Dr. Carrier (or Unwin) either have the expertise or hired the expertise, since it is not very widely appreciated.
This is one reason why results even in the sciences are often stated with unseemly certainty, and so many scientific papers turn out to be unreplicable.

• David Nickol

Dr. Briggs is very much adamant that probability as such does not exist, only probability given a model and evidence.

Isn't this perfectly obvious? As a non-mathematician, I will probably never understand Bayes theorem, but it is certain clear to me that any statement about probabilities—even the simplest—relies on many assumptions, some stated and others generally not stated (but assumed). The 50-50 odds for getting heads or tails when flipping a penny assume that a penny is perfectly weighted (which the penny is not). It assumes the method of flipping the penny is not some exquisitely constructed machine that imparts to the penny a very precisely determined amount of energy with each flip. It assumes no wind is blowing. It assumes the coin is flipped in a gravitational field and will actually come down after it goes up.

When I was on jury duty a few months ago, there was a woman (whose first language was not English) that wanted clarification about "beyond a reasonable doubt." It was briefly explained to her, but it struck me that although it is fairly intuitively obvious, it would be (it seems to me) impossible to fully define it. It would be impossible to nail down all the tacit assumptions in writing history (with or without Bayes theorem) or even in doing extremely precise scientific experiments.

It seems to me quite obvious that there are going to be unstated assumptions involved in carrying out and analyzing any complex endeavor. Probably any two historians given a wealth of material (documents, letters, newspaper accounts, diaries, and so on) would ever write exactly the same historical account with the exact same conclusions. But this does not mean there can't be excellent historical works written.

• Ye Olde Statistician

Isn't this perfectly obvious?
If only it were! We wouldn't get so many scientific papers that don't stand up to replication. (Bayer and Amgen tested a passel of papers on which they had bet considerable research dollars for new medicines, only to find that over half of them did not stand up to replication. Yet the initial results were always stated with "95% confidence", apparently by people who had no idea what confidence intervals are or that their certainties are always far less than what they claim in the journals and press releases. The situation in the social "sciences" is even worse than in medicine and biology. Physicists fare better because they generally take better math courses in training.

But even so, how often do we see the outputs of models reported as if they were facts!

• Illusio

"But even so, how often do we see the outputs of models reported as if they were facts!"

I think it's important to remember that even "facts" are model dependent. Namely dependent on the reality models each and every one of us maintain in our heads. There's no logical contradiction involved with two people disagreeing about what they experience and if they do this, then the result will just be that they will disagree about the premises, just like if they disagreed about models on other levels.

There's really no fundamental difference between "facts" and "the output of models", although I will of course be the first to admit that disputes about what reality entails tend to be resolved by focused study such that one or both parties in a discussion change their minds after having performed controlled experiments. However, we are always dealing with the same situation in that if someone makes a statistical claim they are making a logical argument that other people have to agree with the premises of(Which includes "facts"), as well as the logical structure, if the argument is to be convincing.

I think the problem you are pointing at is more properly stated as a lack of ability to present complex rational arguments, due to lack of mathematical education, than an isolated problem with understanding statistics.

There's no barrier to using probability in historical arguments because of this. The fact that you can "prove" things either way just boils down to whether or not you accept premises that allow such conclusion to be drawn and figuring out whether the premises are true is one of the most important aspects of rational inference. For example, I could start from a bunch of data claiming apples fall upwards to "prove" Newton's theory of gravity wrong and not violate a single law of logic doing so. Very few people would regard this as a problem with the application of statistics in physics when they could pin it on failures in my reality model. It's the same issue with history. The job of a historian is to argue that his premises are true and then to draw conclusions that have probabilistic merit from those while adhering to the laws of logic. If he does, he will convince rational people, if he doesn't, chances are he won't.

Of course, convincing people doesn't mean the conclusions are true either, but this is the best we can do - identify the best candidate hypotheses for beliefs given other axiomatic beliefs and we'll just have to live with it if the axioms we call "facts" end up being wrong.

• Ye Olde Statistician

You do have a point that the vaunted objectivity of fact-based science is an illusion. Theory certainly informs fact, at least to the extent of which facts to pay attention to. Yet there does seem to be a distinction between a model that yields the number of illegal Irish immigrants and the counting of Irish noses. Especially as the former notoriously yielded a negative number. (One envisions sons of the Gael slipping clandestinely from Maclean Avenue in the Bronx and sneaking off to the Auld Sod.) Similarly, there is a distinction between the erosion of a beach predicted by a model and the actual measured erosion of the beach. To say there is "no" fundamental distinction between an algorithm and a measurement overstates the subjective nature of science.

• Michael Murray

It assumes the method of flipping the penny is not some exquisitely constructed machine that imparts to the penny a very precisely determined amount of energy with each flip.

The famous statistician Persi Diaconis at Stanford

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persi_Diaconis

used to be a professional magician. He can flip a coin head or tails as requested.

• Richard Carrier

Such expertise is not needed. Bayes' Theorem is simply the mathematical model for the arguments historians are already making. If they can't make a probabilistic argument that Jesus existed, then they can't claim to know Jesus probably existed. And then we'd all have to concede we don't know Jesus probably existed. Sink the ship of arguing from probabilities, and all probability arguments go down with it. And with that, all human knowledge. Thus, you have to address what I actually argue, not pretend it's some sort of advanced significance testing like in the sciences. It's just an argument that something probably happened in history. And as such is as valid as any other argument that something probably happened in history. Unless no such arguments are valid!

• FisherofMan1111111

Expertise is certainly needed Dr. Carrier! Otherwise, how can we trust that someone is using a method properly without a given advanced knowledge of that method. You yourself aren't a mathematician, although that doesn't mean you aren't smart or good at math. However, that does mean that your use of Bayes Theorem is not going to be adequate when it comes to applying it to the historical Jesus or anyone for that matter. Should we trust Ken Ham to tell us about the age of the earth or evolution? Or should we trust experts in evolutionary biology? I take the latter.

You say "If they can't make a probabilistic argument that Jesus existed, then they can't claim to know Jesus probably existed." Now this is just an exact kind of scientism. Is it your assumption that math is our only way of knowing the past? If so, then you are in for some serious dead-ends. Not only is this self-defeating because it claims that BT is our only way of knowing something that is true, which this sentence itself in return can't be verified by BT to show whether it is more probably true or false. No one arrives at the conclusion that Pontius Pilate existed because of BT, so why Jesus? Your objections are epistemological, not mathematical. Any philosopher who studies history will tell you that you don't need BT and any mathematician for that fact, to solve the past. You simply need sound arguments and evidence in order to know whether something in the past happened. Using concrete numbers is not only dishonest but unnecessary.

• Barry Coleman

"Such expertise is not needed. Bayes' Theorem is simply the mathematical model for the arguments historians are already making"

And that is why your latest books are huge failures.
A 10 year old can grasp Bayes' Theorem, yes, it's not in itself hard mathematics, BUT it is clearly (and I think all who know a bit of math agree!) one of those theorems that are easy to understand but incredibly difficult to apply, especially in "soft sciences" like history.

To note that most of your arguments in the book are fallacious, false or at best strained... and you use them to build up some arbitrary values to do then the final calculation.

But the final calculation is something that a kid who learned multiplication can do, yet truly building up the probabilities is something that you are not competent in, both historically and mathematically.

If you had learned ANYTHING about Bayes theorem is the huge discussion that revolves around it. Not its mathematical rigor and validity, which is easily proven, but rather the application and various epistemological considerations. In fact there is more than one school of though on how to apply the theorem and the theorem has some opposition too (mainly from frequentists, but not only)

But don't believe me, here is a mathematician who clearly show your work is nonsense::

And here ans astronomer (yes they know math):

which sums your work perfectly:
"What Carrier says about probability is at odds with every probability textbook (or lecture notes) I can find. He rejects the foundations of probability laid by frequentists (e.g. Kolmogorov’s axioms) and Bayesians (e.g. Cox’s theorem). He is neither, because we’re all wrong – only Carrier knows how to do probability correctly. "

Git gud, you are welcome

• Barry Coleman

I would add that a certain Richarg carrier claimed in his books:

" “To laypeople who ask me what history to trust, I always offer three basic rules: (1) Don’t believe everything you read; (2) always ask for the primary sources of a claim you find incredible; and (3) beware of scholars who make amazing claims about history but who are not experts in the period, or aren’t even experienced historians at all. That three-step guideline provides a basic inoculation against most bad history” "

Than why does said Mr. Carrier assume that (1) we should believe what he writes (especially since it is at odds with what much better scholars than him are saying) (2) his treatment of the sources is piss poor and (3) he is not an expert in mathematics or history of early Christianity.

Thank you for telling us why we should ignore your work.

• David Nickol

If what I surmise about the two books is correct (and I haven't read either one of them), something is wrong with the reasoning here. From what I can tell based on the book information and the reviews on Amazon, Unwin seems to believe he can prove the "God of philosophy" exists. Dr Briggs tells us

This is countered by Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus by Richard Carrier, whose [sic] uses Bayes’s theorem to prove, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God does not exist because Jesus himself never did.

It seems to me quite true that if Jesus never existed, the "God of Christianity" does not exist. But I believe it to be the case that none of the "proofs" of the existence of God attempt to prove that Jesus was a historical personage and God Incarnate. So unless there is something about Unwin's book of which I am unaware (that is, unless it proves that the God who exists is a Trinitarian God, the second person of whom was Jesus, the human incarnation of this Trinitarian God), it seems to me Unwin's book and Carrier's book need not contradict each other.

In short, although proving Jesus never existed would be a devastating blow to Christianity, it would in no way prove that God didn't exist. Many people believe in God who do not believe in the "Christian God," and proof that Jesus never existed (or was not God Incarnate) in no way proves that God doesn't exist.

• David Nickol

Or, to put it much more succinctly, the title (and premise) of the piece is Bayes Theorem Proves Jesus Existed (And That He Didn’t), but where is the proof that Jesus existed? As far as I can tell, Unwin does not attempt to use Bayes's theorem to prove Jesus existed. Proving that God exists does not prove Jesus existed.

• Richard Carrier

Indeed. Briggs has defamed me by claiming I argued that God does not exist because Jesus did not exist. I have never made such a ridiculous argument, anywhere.

• Barry Coleman

Well with all the ridiculous arguments you made in the last 10 years we can just call it even?

• GCBill

Relevant:

• Doug Shaver

Mathematizing your biases and values is also a really good way to get them out into to open so they can get the attention they need.

• Michael Murray

This reminds me of the Drake Equation to calculate the probability of other intelligent life in the universe. It's not the answer so much which is important, as that depends on the guesses you make for the inputs, but the question of what the inputs are and what we need to determine to make a sensible guess.

• Richard Carrier

Exactly. The only way mathematization can disguise a deception, is to do this to an innumerate audience. Hence the very point of my book Proving History is that we need to get numerate; and then it explains how to informedly analyze and critique a Bayesian argument, in terms accessible to humanities majors (nothing more than sixth grade math required).

• GCBill

This I agree with, and it's something I wish I had been more clear about. One of the good points to salvage from this article is that "You can’t blame the tool for its misuse." Unfortunately, many people are innumerate, so deceptive tactics are more effective than they should be.

[I myself do not know a lot of math, but I know enough to recognize when someone is trying to Euler me. If you're right about the level of math required, most people can at least learn enough not to get Eulered.]

• staircaseghost

"The only way mathematization can disguise a deception, is to do this to an innumerate audience."

I'd have to disagree. Even a highly numerate audience can be hoodwinked when the formalization is fed bad data outside the audience's knowledge base.

Take the McGrew paper as the classic example of this. Numeracy alone might help you spot them treating 12 dependent variables i.e. the disciples within the 4 gospels as independent. But you can't use math skills alone to detect the howlers like "they were all written by eyewitnesses or people who scrupulously interviewed eyewitnesses", or wholesale fabrications like "die for a lie".

• Ray Vorkin

"Richard Carrier... uses Bayes’s theorem to prove, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God does not exist because Jesus himself never did."

If it can be "proven"...And I don't think it can in the sense of "proven"...I think the key word here is "proven", by some theorem or "evidence" that Jesus did not exist, that would indeed be problematic for history and Christianity.....since Jesus being the second person of the trinity and if "proven" he did not exist, it would render the whole Christian religion shipwreck. However....even if this turns out to be the case...it certainly does not "prove" that a deist type of god or creator does not exist. The thing is, that I think that it is very likely that Jesus of the NT did exist, given the particulars of history according to Max Ehrman and other non christian historians who would seem to have no Catholic or Christian bias would concur with this stance.

Even if the Jesus of the NT can actually be proven that he lived and was crucified, in no way can be taken to infer that he was god or was the second person of the "trinity". The most that that would do is lend a certain amount of evidence to the fact that that the Jewish sect who later referred to themselves as Christians did in fact exist and believed that Jesus rose from the dead.

Probability theorem can be argued that the "probability" of "god" can or cannot exist but that is a different thing from using the same mathematics to prove that a particular person did or did not exist given the historical gleanings....dare I say "evidence"?.

one minus epsilon, that the God does or does not exist because Jesus himself never did."....just seems silly to me. The most that can be inferred is that the god of the Christians does not exist in that case!

This means nothing to the average person....so how can they relate to this article. It would be a very welcome explanation for all of us if one of you math wizards would explain this in layman's terms about one minus epsilon. Thankyou.

• Doug Shaver

This is countered by Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus by Richard Carrier, who uses Bayes’s theorem to prove, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God does not exist because Jesus himself never did.

I've read the book twice. I seem to have missed that part both times.

• Doug Shaver

But if you say, “Given Jesus was a myth, created as a conspiracy to flummox the Romans and garner tithes” then the proposition has probability zero (i.e., it is false.)

Is the author trying to suggest that all mythicists are conspiracy theorists? If so, I would be disinclined to pay much attention to anything else he has to say on the issue.

• Richard Carrier

Well spotted. I have never argued "Jesus was...created as a conspiracy to flummox the Romans and garner tithes." That is another misrepresentation of my work.

• The point is the alleged motive of those inventing the Jesus story is pretty hard to discern. Christianity was offensive to Jews and to Hellenists and to the Roman empire. It got a lot of people killed. Why make it up if this Jesus guy never really existed? Tell people this guy preached in Galilee and Jerusalem and drew huge crowd then hope nobody checks? All so you can get thrown in jail and maybe crucified yourself? It is a huge question that is largely ignored by secular scholars.

• David Nickol

Tell people this guy preached in Galilee and Jerusalem and drew huge crowd then hope nobody checks?

If you are talking about Gospel accounts, how were people in the first century supposed to do fact checking on events that allegedly happened forty or more years earlier in another country?

I think a great many Christian biblical scholars would doubt the "huge crowds" reported in the Gospels.

• You just go there and ask questions. Luke did it. He said many others did as well. Luke 1: 65,66 says:

And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

This is what you would expect. A lot of stories being repeated and theories about what it all means. That is what Luke found. It seems the other who checked found the same as well.

I do find the first liars to be hard to explain. Historians typically waffle about who that was because putting names on them makes it harder to dodge the questions. Was it St Peter that made up Jesus? What was his motive? How did he get St Paul to play along?

• David Nickol

I do find the first liars to be hard to explain.

Well, I think the "straw man" accusation is overused on Strange Notions but if ever it was justified, it is here.

As far as I know, nobody maintains that Christianity was invented by "liars." It's just nonsense to imply such a thing. The scholarly consensus is that the Gospel stories first existed as oral tradition passed on by followers of Jesus and that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John composed the Gospels based on that tradition (and perhaps some documents, such as the sayings source Q).

Very "liberal" biblical scholars, and historians who are not Christian believe the oral tradition was elaborated and exaggerated to paint a picture of a divine Jesus, but they do not accuse anyone involved in this process of "lying." The so-called mythicists, as I understand them (and I do not pretend to be at all knowledgeable) believe the story of Jesus arose in much the same way that the story of any legendary figure does. They do not charge anyone with lying.

Was it St Peter that made up Jesus? What was his motive? How did he get St Paul to play along?

Apologies for being so blunt, but this is more nonsense. It is the consensus of historians and biblical scholars that Jesus existed, that Peter knew him, and that Paul knew of him, although without directly encountering him during his lifetime. I have never heard anyone claim that Peter invented Jesus. It's just preposterous, but nobody (except you) has suggested it. Again, it is a straw man argument if there ever was one.

I am very uncertain about the complete truth of Catholicism (but not at all about the existence of Jesus). But if the only choice I had was between Christianity being invented out of whole cloth by a group of liars, on the one hand, and the Gospels (including the miracles and the resurrection) being historically accurate, on the other, I would go with the latter. But it is nowhere near that simple, and it is naive or disingenuous to imply it is.

• "As far as I know, nobody maintains that Christianity was invented by "liars." It's just nonsense to imply such a thing."

They use other words. They try and belittle the act by renaming it. Really "liar" is to weak. Calling them "oath -breakers" might be closer. You need to grasp what Christians thought about Jesus. Those who believed took what He said and did very seriously. Those who didn't believe would not have the clout to present a bunch of new data on Jesus and have it accepted.

"But if the only choice I had was between Christianity being invented out of whole cloth by a group of liars, on the one hand, and the Gospels (including the miracles and the resurrection) being historically accurate, on the other, I would go with the latter. But it is nowhere near that simple, and it is naive or disingenuous to imply it is."

I am not saying there are only 2 choices. I am saying that there are big holes in the many half stories told of the gospels not being historically accurate. The hole is always how the non-history ends up getting accepted so widely and so strongly in such a short time. They throw out word like "legendary" and "myth" but they never tell anything close to a plausible account of how first or second century Christians get so confused about what the Jesus story is.

• Doug Shaver

They use other words. They try and belittle the act by renaming it.

Can you read our minds, or do you just assume the worst about anyone who disagrees with you?

I have never said or believed that anybody involved in producing the gospels was a liar.

The authors could have believed every word they wrote, but since I don't believe in divine inspiration, I'm not obliged to believed that they could not have been mistaken about some of it.

Alternatively, they could have been writing fiction, in which case they did not expect their readers to believe that they were reporting factual history.

In either case, there was no intent to deceive and therefore no lying. That actually is what I believe.

You need to grasp what Christians thought about Jesus.

And you need to grasp that some of us don't share your presuppositions about what the first Christians were thinking about Jesus or anybody else.

• You prove my point. Maybe the authors knew they were writing falsehoods (in a manner way different from lying of course). Then again maybe they were mistaken. So you are saying you have no clue. That is pretty close to the scholarly consensus. We have no clue where the New Testament came from. That is a huge reason for believing the Catholic story. It at least explains something. You might hate the supernatural elements but at least admit you have no natural theory that explains the data.

"And you need to grasp that some of us don't share your presuppositions about what the first Christians were thinking about Jesus or anybody else."

You can go there but you need to know you are asserting the existence of a different religion without a lot of evidence. We have writings from early Christians and they don't show any belief in any non-historical religion. To say such people existed and they wrote the new Testament and then the historical brand of Christianity replaced it. That is a lot to swallow. You would expect something to be left behind from those steps.

• David Nickol

That is pretty close to the scholarly consensus. We have no clue where the New Testament came from.

From

SANCTA MATER ECCLESIA
"Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels"
Pontifical Biblical Commission
April 21, 1964
English Translation by Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ

VIII. The apostles proclaimed above all the death and resurrection of the Lord, as they bore witness to Jesus. They faithfully explained His life and words, while taking into account in their method of preaching the circumstances in which their listeners found themselves. After Jesus rose from the dead and His divinity was clearly perceived, faith, far from destroying the memory of what had transpired, rather confirmed it, because their faith rested on the things which Jesus did and taught. Nor was He changed into a "mythical" person and His teaching deformed in consequence of the worship which the disciples from that time on paid Jesus as the Lord and the Son of God. On the other hand, there is no reason to deny that the apostles passed on to their listeners what was really said and done by the Lord with that fuller understanding which they enjoyed, having been instructed by the glorious events of the Christ and taught by the light of the Spirit of Truth. So, just as Jesus Himself after His resurrection "interpreted to them" the words of the Old Testament as well as His own, they too interpreted His words and deeds according to the needs of their listeners. "Devoting themselves to the ministry of the word," they preached and made use of various modes of speaking which were suited to their own purpose and the mentality of their listeners. For they were debtors "to Greeks and barbarians, to the wise and the foolish." But these modes of speaking with which the preachers proclaimed Christ must be distinguished and (properly) assessed: catecheses, stories, testimonia, hymns, doxologies, prayers--and other literary forms of this sort which were in Sacred Scripture and were accustomed to be used by men of that time.

IX. This primitive instruction, which was at first passed on by word of mouth and then in writing--for it soon happened that many tried "to compile a narrative of the things" which concerned the Lord Jesus--was committed to writing by the sacred authors in four Gospels for the benefit of the churches, with a method suited to the peculiar purpose which each (author) set for himself. From the many things handed down they selected some things, reduced others to a synthesis, (still) others they explicated as they kept in mind the situation of the churches. With every (possible) means they sought that their readers might become aware of the reliability of those words by which they had been instructed. Indeed, from what they had received the sacred writers above all selected the things which were suited to the various situations of the faithful and to the purpose which they had in mind, and adapted their narration of them to the same situations and purpose. Since the meaning of a statement also depends on the sequence, the Evangelists, in passing on the words and deeds of our Saviour, explained these now in one context, now in another, depending on (their) usefulness to the readers. Consequently, let the exegete seek out the meaning intended by the Evangelist in narrating a saying or a deed in a certain way or in placing it in a certain context. For the truth of the story is not at all affected by the fact that the Evangelists relate the words and deeds of the Lord in a different order, and express his sayings not literally but differently, while preserving (their) sense. For, as St. Augustine says, "It is quite probable that each Evangelist believed it to have been his duty to recount what he had to in that order in which it pleased God to suggest it to his memory in those things at least in which the order, whether it be this or that, detracts in nothing from the truth and authority of the Gospel. But why the Holy Spirit, who apportions individually to each one as He wills, and who therefore undoubtedly also governed and ruled the minds of the holy (writers) in recalling what they were to write because of the pre-eminent authority which the books were to enjoy, permitted one to compile his narrative in this way, and another in that, anyone with pious diligence may seek the reason and with divine aid will be able to find it."

• Doug Shaver

You prove my point.

Perhaps I misunderstood your point. When David Nichol said, "As far as I know, nobody maintains that Christianity was invented by 'liars'," you replied, "They use other words." I took your point there to be that (a) we actually do believe Christianity was invented by liars but (b) we won't admit to believing so.

So you are saying you have no clue.

No. To enumerate certain possibilities is not to claim indecision as to which is most probable.

You might hate the supernatural elements but at least admit you have no natural theory that explains the data.

You're assuming facts not in evidence. Hatred is a feeling. I have said nothing here about my feelings toward the supernatural. And I have made no admissions about what theories I have or don't have.

you need to know you are asserting the existence of a different religion without a lot of evidence.

I am looking at the same evidence you have, and I'm looking at all of it. The difference between us is not in the evidence we're examining. The difference is in the presuppositions we bring to our examinations. You are presupposing the truth of Catholic dogma. I am not.

• I took your point there to be that (a) we actually do believe Christianity was invented by liars but (b) we won't admit to believing so.

In terms of the characterization of it I would say that is true. People often do admit such a rapid and dramatic miscommunication is unlikely to be completely accidental. Yet they tone down the language trying to make it seem more plausible. Yet all the people groups involved valued truth and saw these matters as being very sacred and profound. They would see it as the worst form of lying.

No. To enumerate certain possibilities is not to claim indecision as to which is most probable.

OK. Do you think there is one theory that can stand up to any logical scrutiny?

You're assuming facts not in evidence. Hatred is a feeling. I have said nothing here about my feelings toward the supernatural. And I have made no admissions about what theories I have or don't have.

I don't expect you to admit anything. Still that is the elephant in the room.

I am looking at the same evidence you have, and I'm looking at all of it. The difference between us is not in the evidence we're examining. The difference is in the presuppositions we bring to our examinations. You are presupposing the truth of Catholic dogma. I am not.

You are powerfully influenced by your atheism. You don't admit. That just means your biases are worse. You can claim to be following the evidence yet you don't give an interpretation of it that makes sense.

Catholicism actually prefers a natural interpretation to a supernatural one in most cases. That is if there isn't revelation that actually says it is supernatural. So if you can give a natural explanation for Jesus walking on water or healing a man born blind then I am not only allowed to accept it but I am required to say it is more likely.

Atheism dies if you admit one miracle. So your dogma is much more rigid about how you need to interpret every piece of data.

• Doug Shaver

I don't expect you to admit anything.

You don't need an admission. You assume I'm guilty until I prove my innocence, and as far as you're concerned there is no way for me to prove it.

Do you think there is one theory that can stand up to any logical scrutiny?

I could tell you what I think, but why should I bother? You won't believe me unless I tell you what you've already decided I think.

• The one thing you can do to convince me is defend one theory based on evidence. I might still think you are biased but if the evidence is there I can be convinced you are right on any given point.

Not surprisingly you won't do it. You can see that the problems I have raised are going to be impossible to deal with.

At the end of the day, the only reason to distrust the New Testament is because it asserts that some supernatural things occurred. If you don't beg the question by assuming that can't happen then there is no reason to say it can't be accurate.

• Doug Shaver

You can see that the problems I have raised are going to be impossible to deal with.

What I cannot deal with is your assumption that I'm a liar.

• David Nickol

Not surprisingly you won't do it. You can see that the problems I have raised are going to be impossible to deal with.

Doug Shaver is correct. You have, in essence, said anyone who disagrees with you on this topic is doing so in bad faith. You have declared yourself right and implied anyone who disagrees with you is lying or is in denial.

Why should anyone discuss this with you further? I certainly won't.

• This is just nonsense. I am the one being rational. He is the one refusing to defend his position. We both think the other's motives are questionable. So what? Rational discourse does not require sound motives. It just requires sound argument. Make a good argument and then bad faith or good faith become irrelevant. Make no argument and just call the other person biased and you will end up where we are.

I remain happy to have anyone try and explain how the New Testament could be wildly inaccurate and yet become so strongly accepted by Christians so widely and so quickly. The response is always sneering. I point out that is not rational. It is not scholarly. Maybe I do it in to insulting a way but when you have so much arrogance and such poor content it is hard to avoid.

• David Nickol

I am the one being rational. He is the one refusing to defend his position.

But you have already stated that any position other than your own is a lie. Why should anyone bother to state any position that contradicts yours when you have already, sight unseen, branded it a lie? Dialogue, it seems to me, requires being willing to consider that your opponent may have something of value to say that might—no matter how unlikely it may be—cause you to modify your own opinion. To declare in advance that your opponent will only be able to come up with lies is to say your only interest in continuing the discussion is to show how wrong (and how much of a liar, or a believer of lies) your opponent is. Whether you have an admirable "certainty of faith" that your opinions about the origins of the New Testament cannot possibly be wrong, or whether you are just arrogant and bullheaded, you are the one who ended the conversation by stating that any credible response to you was impossible and would be made up of lies.

• "But you have already stated that any position other than your own is a lie."
Did I say that? If I did I didn't mean to. I don't believe that. I said if all the New Testament miracles are false then somebody lied to early Christians. If Christianity is a lie then there must be a liar somewhere.

People do try and escape that. Maybe someone just misunderstood someone else. Like Carrier suggesting St Paul was misunderstood when he talked about Jesus. That St Paul never though Jesus was a real person. Most find that highly implausible. Why? Because it is precise. When you make a theory precise the problems become clear. Unless of course it is true. If the truth is there somewhere then it should stand up to scrutiny.

• David Nickol

If Christianity is a lie then there must be a liar somewhere.

Who said Christianity is a lie? Those words come from you, not from me or (as far as I have noticed) anyone else whose comments have appeared here.

• Like I said. People try and escape the obvious. Christians believe in certain historical events that are recorded in the New Testament. Either they are the truth or the are a lie.

• Doug Shaver

Either they are the truth or the are a lie.

Does that apply to every narrative ever written, or just the New Testament?

• Michael Murray

I remain happy to have anyone try and explain how the New Testament could be wildly inaccurate and yet become so strongly accepted by Christians so widely and so quickly.

Surely the past and current history of the Church of the Latter Day Saints presents an example of how well meaning people can join and continue to support a religion whose origins are fictional.

• The origins are fictional but the source of the fiction is pretty obvious, Joseph Smith. So there is no mystery there. He made claims and you either beleive him or you don't. They grew and still grow by aggressive evangelism. You show up at people's doors you get converts.

Jesus never really claimed private revelation in the same way. He did miracles publicly. Could he have faked them all? Maybe. Yet that is not what people claim. They typically claim Jesus was a moral teacher and someone else transformed him. Yet who and how and when and why remain unclear.

• David Nickol

Luke 1:65-66 discusses events that took place in Judea before the birth of Jesus. There is a pretty broad consensus that Luke-Acts was written sometime around A.D. 80-90. According to the NAB

Luke’s consistent substitution of Greek names for the Aramaic or Hebrew names occurring in his sources (e.g., Lk 23:33; Mk 15:22; Lk 18:41; Mk 10:51), his omission from the gospel of specifically Jewish Christian concerns found in his sources (e.g., Mk 7:1–23), his interest in Gentile Christians (Lk 2:30–32; 3:6, 38; 4:16–30; 13:28–30; 14:15–24; 17:11–19; 24:47–48), and his incomplete knowledge of Palestinian geography, customs, and practices are among the characteristics of this gospel that suggest that Luke was a non-Palestinian writing to a non-Palestinian audience that was largely made up of Gentile Christians. [Emphasis added]

To suggest that Luke visited the hills of Judea to verify stories from eighty or more years ago surrounding the birth of John the Baptist so he could confidently include them in his Gospel is very difficult to imagine!

• He did imply he researched the events. Maybe he didn't go there. It is possible his attempts to put together an account of what happened might have been based on talking with people who were there. I still suspect he went. The sentence you bolded is understood. I didn't say he lived there. I said he put an effort into finding out the facts from eyewitnesses. Where would he find them? Where do you think?

I am not sure what you point about the year is. People play with dates. Yours are about 20 years to late. So what? Do you think people stop talking about miraculous events after a few decades. Do people still tell WWII stories? I have no trouble imagining Luke looking for and finding a lot of people who knew the story well.

• Doug Shaver

You just go there and ask questions. Luke did it. He said many others did as well.

It's your holy book. You have to take Luke's word for everything he said. I don't have to do that for any writer, ancient or modern.

• Doug Shaver

All so you can get thrown in jail and maybe crucified yourself? It is a huge question that is largely ignored by secular scholars.

Disagreeing is not the same thing as ignoring. Secular scholars who have investigated apologists' claims that Christians were widely and violently persecuted from Day One have found no good evidence to back them up.

• Doug Shaver

I was a Christian when I first learned that before the American Civil War, the Bible was used to both defend and condemn slavery. I did not, as a result of that discovery, conclude that the Bible's moral teachings were ambiguous. I concluded that somebody was probably misinterpreting the Bible.

• It is not at all surprising that individuals disagree. In common usage, probability refers to an individual’s subjective certitude about the truth of a proposition. Following the lead of Bayes in this regard, some have adopted various sets of rules to rate the subjective certitude of the truth of a proposition or the prudence of a course of action. Modern statistics is a conventional set of assumptions about the distribution of measurements about a mean to express human certitude of the mean. Probability as rating certitude and certitude itself characterize the knower, not the known. These meanings of probability, referring to certitude, are in stark contrast to mathematical probability which is simply the fractional concentration of an element in a logical set.

“The God Delusion” completely blurs the distinctions among these three different meanings of the word, probability. Its thesis is that there is no arithmetical solution to the improbability of God (human certitude) whereas there is an arithmetical solution to the improbability of evolution in a one-off event (mathematical probability), all the while using the term, statistical probability. Upon examination of the arithmetic, it is apparent that the ‘solution’ has no effect on the mathematical probability of success of evolution, but rather increases the efficiency of mutation. Not only do the two probabilities of God and of evolutionary success have different meanings in Dawkins’ thesis, but within the evolutionary algorithm, he mistakes efficiency for mathematical probability.

• Jim (hillclimber)

Hi Bob, I would try to precise that a bit. It is good to try to distinguish between variability and uncertainty, but the relationship between those two concepts is a lot more complex than one of "stark contrast".

At the colloquial level, we know on the one hand that there is a certain "flavor" of uncertainty that arises from variability / complexity. On the other hand we know that it is very difficult to talk about uncertainty without reference to variability. At the technical statistical level there is also a deep relationship between variability and uncertainty, as evidenced by the somewhat mysterious correspondence between many Bayesian procedures and their frequentist analogs.

I personally don't think it is fruitful to make probabilistic arguments for or against God's existence, but I do think that probability should have a central place in our reflections about God, since both probability and biblical theology deal with the interplay between order and surprise.

• We disagree on two points. What appears to be a probabilistic
argument for or against the existence of God says nothing about the existence of God. Rather, it is a rating by the arguer of the certitude of his personal judgment. This is true of any probabilistic argument about any proposition concerning reality. This includes the probability, i.e. the certitude, statements concerning the mean of a set of measurements, which statements are based on a convention to which we all subscribe. Secondly, the mathematics of probability based on the definition of probability as the fractional concentration of an element in a logical set is an exercise in pure logic. It has nothing to do with material reality. This can be seen in the realization that the IDs of the logical elements are purely nominal. The probability relationships of a set of two different elements and populations of logical sets based on the two-element set are identical no matter what the IDs of the elements. The IDs may be A and B, heads and tails, a sheep and a hatpin, or a cat and a sodium ion. Science, in contrast, is concerned with the measurable properties of material things, which properties are totally irrelevant to the mathematics of probability of logical sets. Within the mathematics of probability of logical sets, there arises no question of truth concerning material things or the existence of anything. A discussion of logic, of course, does not preclude the use of visual aids serving as mere analogies.

• Richard Carrier

"This is countered by Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus by Richard Carrier, who uses Bayes’s theorem to prove, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God does not exist because Jesus himself never did."

I am formally asking for a retraction and apology.

That book does not argue for either the non-existence of God or the non-existence of Jesus (much less calculates a result). False claim number one.

My other book, On the Historicity of Jesus, which does argue for the non-existence of Jesus (though finding his existence may be as likely as 1 in 3), does not argue "God does not exist" at all, much less with the ridiculous argument "Jesus didn't exist, therefore God doesn't exist." False claims number two and three.

Please retract these claims, and apologize for severely misrepresenting what I have written and argued in those books.

If you want to address my Bayesian argument against a God (which has nothing to do with Jesus), you will have to interact with my chapter on the design argument in Loftus, ed., The End of Christianity. And you can't just say it can't work because it's Bayesian. Because you must accept the output of Bayes' Theorem if you accept the inputs. So the only way to challenge my argument there is to challenge the inputs. As one certainly can do for Unwin...he is not wrong to use Bayes' Theorem, he just puts garbage in and thus gets garbage out. But you can't simply assume all uses of Bayes' Theorem do this...you have to actually show it is being done in each case.

• Ha! I was just going to chime in to say that this post caused me to buy your book. So far I quite like it.

You should know that these posts are often re-posts from other sites, though I would think the editors of this Strange Notions might wish to respond as well.

The original article seems to be here, with the author commenting, it is two years old: http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=5404

• Carrier,

Briggs here (sorry for being slow, but I hadn't known Strange Notions was running this column). No retraction nor apology coming from me, old son.

Your book "Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus"---which self-defensively boasts itself as work of "careful scholarship"---does indeed discuss putting numbers via Bayes's Theorem on the non-existence of Jesus (who is God, which I think you've forgotten we Christians claim). You can indignantly quibble with my joking phrase "with probability one minus epsilon", but you sound like a lawyer trying to get a murder charge dismissed because the prosecuting attorney had a typo in his indictment.

I claim that you in fact hold (1) that it is more likely than not that Jesus did not exist, and (2) that it is more likely than not that the Christian God (who is Jesus) does not exist. If I'm wrong about this, then I'll apologize, and humbly: there will even be grovelling involved. I'm not interested where you've made these claims, merely that you do indeed hold (1) and (2). Am I wrong?

So. Your "Proving History" is wrong-headed exercise in scientism. Playing with formula to give the appearance that history is---finally!---being done scientifically is silly and deceptive. The reasons are simple.

Not all probability is quantifiable, so it is false to say that every historical proposition can be assigned a number. Proof? Let your only (as in only) evidence be, "In this bag there are a bunch of red marbles, and a few blue ones." The probability that "I pull out a blue marble" given only (as in only) this evidence is not quantifiable. No number exists, nor does one even lurk. Why? Because "bunch" and "few" are highly ambiguous and mean different things to different people (even at different times).

That was an easy problem. Real history is much more difficult and vaguer. As Ye Olde Statistician in the comments above rightly says, the unconditional probability of events does not exist. You always (as in always) need to say, "Given E, the probability of X is this-and-such" where E is whatever evidence that you have. It's bizarre to think we can therefore quantify any proposition in the absence of stated evidence. (I wonder if you realize that they way you formulated Bayes's Theorem is a recognition of this fact? I sincerely applaud your inclusion of "b", the "background knowledge" in the formulae.)

And there are two more glaring difficulties. First, even given the same evidence, two people can assign different probabilities for the same proposition. This is because evidence does not exist in a vacuum: it must be interpreted through some lens, the least of which is our understanding of the language and grammar in which the evidence is stated.

Take one of your fanciful interpretations of a Biblical text as an example; your false and dogmatic claim (in Chapter 3 of "Proving") that events like the three-hour darkness which befell Jerusalem after Jesus died was not likely because we don't see things like this happen more often. This assumes what it sets out to prove: that the darkness was not miraculous (and unique to that moment). Anyway, the eventual 0.01% chance the three-hour darkness occurred you derived is silly.

Second, for many (all?) historical propositions we want to quantify, different evidence exists. There is no unique E for any event. Therefore there are no unique probabilities.

I could go on and on (don't fall prey to the argument from silence), but in short, except maybe in trivial cases, using Bayes's Theory to quantify the probability of history just doesn't work.

But I want to be a good sport. I see you've asked me "interact" with a chapter you wrote in another book. So I bought that book today (and am now out nearly nine bucks!). I'll criticize the chapter you pointed out on my own blog sometime next week (no sooner than Tuesday).

Briggs

• Hey. I don't have much to say about the argument, but just a question about Bayes's theorem.

What about prior probabilities? Are these also probabilities given some background information? If so, couldn't you apply Bayes's theorem to them as well, and get the prior prior probabilities?

What do you do with the most prior priors? Are there most prior priors?

If you have the time to answer my question, I'd be most grateful.

• I don't understand. If you have knowledge that a bag has more red marbles than blue, are you saying that we cannot attribute ANY probability to pulling out a blue one?

Carrier is quite clear that assigning values is subject to the resolution of our information. If we know the ratio of blue to red, we can know the probability. If we have no knowledge of the ratio we have have no understanding of the probability. This is why he talks of error margins.

Are you really saying that there being worldwide darkness for 3 hours is just as likely as not? That I am being silly if I were to say "I am reasonably sure the whole world will not go dark today?"

• Matt Browwwwn

How would you? There's no prior probability or prior number to assign to either marble(Red or Blue). There's no knowledge of the amount of marbles in the bag. In this case, you merely have to judge the outcome of a red marble on other criteria. The same is with history. No one has any knowledge(except God) about a prior probability or outcome of an historical event. There's no way to predict the odds of Jesus existing or not existing. So you must then judge his existence(or any other historical figure/event) on other criteria, for example: Degree of ad-hocness, explanatory Scope/power, multiple independent sources, Embarrassment of certain details about his life, eyewitness testimony, contemporary sources,etc. To try and use mathematical formulas to do this is far more complex and pretty much impossible.

• Again, look at what I said. If we know the ratio of blue and red we do have some ability to speak of the odds of pulling a blue one out. Eg is there 10,000 red and one blue. If we have no knowledge etc. we cannot assign probabilities at all which means we simply can't say one way or another. This applies to the gospels too.

Even if God exists we can look at our evidence of him entering time and resurecting himself. Prior to Jesus the evidence is zero. This gives us a low prior even if we accept deities exist and resurrection is possible.

• Matt Browwwwn

But we don't have any knowledge whatsoever of the amount of red to blue marbles in the bag. It would only work if we did but we don't. There's no information about the total amount of marbles in the bag, so how do you calculate a prior probability without a number? You can't. History is very much the same way.

How can you possibly predict what God can and can't do? This is merely speculative and subjective.

• Briggs, thank you. I appreciate your explanation. As my husband (who studied Applied Analytical Methods at Cornell, BTW) says, "This is a [there were some colorful adjectives] misapplication of method."

• David Nickol

Well, that settles everything, doesn't it? :P

I am a little confused, though. Dr. Briggs says,

The real question is this: how can probability prove a thing and its opposite simultaneously? The answer is simple: the same way logic can prove a thing and its opposite. This does not prove that logic should be lumped with pseudoscience, however. You can’t blame the tool for its misuse.

Is the argument that it is foolish to apply Bayes theorem to historical matters? If so, that would imply that it was foolish to apply logic to historical matters.

I am no expert on the application of Bayes theorem to historical questions, but it seems to me it is certainly possible that there is value in a historian making more explicit the method by which he or she arrives at a judgment. I am currently reading Team of Rivals (an excellent book), and Doris Kearns Goodwin frequently makes judgments about matters of fact involving Lincoln and other major figures in the story. (Did Kate Chase really love William Sprague, or did she marry him for his money?) Granted, in a work of narrative history, one doesn't want equations! But I certainly wouldn't scoff at the idea that some historical questions might be dealt with using mathematical probabilities. It might be that for any particular key event, each of a hundred different historians would assign a different probability to the event. But arguably they would just be making explicit the process that was going on in their heads.

• Jim (hillclimber)

I don't see how it would be false and dogmatic to claim that a three hour darkness is improbable. Any fool can tell you that a three hour darkness in the middle of the day is improbable. That doesn't mean that it didn't happen, but the improbability of it should be uncontroversial. Indeed, one who believes it to have been a miraculous event would necessarily believe that it was unlikely. Take away the improbability of the event and you no longer have a miracle.

• GCBill

I've had people try to convince me that an event's status as "miracle" doesn't depend on its probability of occurring. For a number of reasons, I find their arguments wholly unpersuasive.

• Sqrat

Are you distinguishing between "a miracle" and "a supernatural event"? As I understand Catholic doctrine, the transformation of wafer and wine into the body and blood of Jesus is basically an everyday event, not an improbable event. If only improbable events are miracles, then transubstantiation is not a miracle. And, as I understand Catholic doctrine, God intervenes in the universe everywhere and all the time to keep things from poofing out of existence. Since that intervention is ubiquitous both spatially and temporally, it can't be a miracle if only improbable events are miracles.

When evaluating the probability associated with a claim that a miracle occurred, what we actually have to evaluate is not the probability that a miraculous event occurred. Rather, we have to approach the problem indirectly by evaluating the probability that the claim that a miraculous event occurred is true. It seems to me that two other likely possibilities -- that the claimant was honestly mistaken, or that the claimant was simply lying -- should always be regarded as inherently vastly more probable than the probability that the claim is true, on simple methodological grounds. This means that any claim that a miracle occurred requires a vast amount of corroboration to be taken seriously.

Or, as Carl Sagan famously put it, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

• Jim (hillclimber)

My understanding is that, per Catholic teaching, you basically need two ingredients in order to judge an event to be a miracle:

1. The event must amaze.
2. The event must be interpretable as a sign of some deeper reality.

To a significant degree, that understanding is based on Robert Barron's youtube video on miracles , as I consider him to be a reliable guide to Catholic orthodoxy.

It seems to me that only an improbable event can have the power to truly amaze. There are many expected things in life that I find beautiful, but it is only the unexpected (and therefore improbable) that amazes me. As you also correctly point out, that implies that transubstantiation is not a miracle, a point corroborated explicitly in Barron's video.

As far as the term "supernatural": to me, it does not mean: "God caused it". As you correctly point out, God causes everything, so supernatural would be a useless term if that were its meaning. Supernatural means, to me, "outside of the natural order", and "outside of the natural order" means "unexpected based on everything we know (and, perhaps, based on everything we ever will know)", or equivalently, "improbable, conditional on all of the knowledge that we have (or ever will have)".

In summary, no, I don't distinguish between supernatural events and miracles, and I believe both essentially refer to events that are "permanently surprising and significant".

• Sqrat

Jim,

There's something very puzzling about this. In the video, Dr, Camarata asks Father Barron, "What is a miracle?" That question is logically identical to the question, "What does the word 'miracle' mean?" Now, if you don't know what a word means, why on earth would you consult a priest instead of a dictionary?

• Jim (hillclimber)

I guess if you want to know what the word "miracle" means in (for example) colloquial American English, you would consult an American English dictionary. That would be fine, as long as you understood that the American English usage is significantly colored by (for example) David Hume's conceptions of miracles, and that those conceptions are, from a Catholic perspective, a bit misguided. If you were looking for a summary of what the word "miracle" has meant in the history of Catholic thought, and how it is best understood in Catholic theology, you would consult someone who knows something about that tradition (not necessarily a priest, but someone well-informed about the tradition).

• Sqrat

I don't think that the definitions of "miracle" that one is apt to find find in English-language dictionaries are particularly colloquial, particularly American, or particularly Humean. The Oxford English Dictionary gives, as the first definition of the word, "A marvellous event not ascribable to human power or the operation of any natural force, and therefore attributed to supernatural, esp. divine, agency; esp. an act (e.g. of healing) demonstrating control over nature and serving as evidence that the agent is either divine or divinely favoured." It cites usages of the word in that sense going all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (when England was still Catholic, and long before Aquinas ever set pen to parchment).

Your point, nevertheless, is well-taken. Catholics often seems to be speaking a somewhat different language than English, and to understand it one sometimes feels the need for a Catholic-English dictionary.

• Jim (hillclimber)

As far as the statement that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", this is a point where I would have to backtrack a bit and agree in part with the OP. The judgement that a claim is extraordinary really does depend on your frame of reference. If you have already come to believe (via some other evidence, which in principle could be made explicit) that God was revealing something unique and central in the person of Jesus, and if you have already come to believe (again, via some other evidence) that God intends to surprise us at times (only rarely of course, otherwise it could not be surprising), then, conditional on that understanding of reality, it is in a sense, "not surprising that God would surprise us". In particular, it is not surprising (given that frame of reference) that God would use surprises to call special attention to the life of Jesus. In that sense, it was a little misleading for me to claim that "any fool knows that a three hour darkness in the middle of the day is improbable". Conditional on certain prior beliefs, a three hour darkness on a particular day that is already understood to have very special significance may not be particularly improbable.

For myself, I don't have a particularly strong belief that all of the miracles in the Gospels "actually happened". With the exception of the resurrection, the historicity of the miracle stories is not something that I really hang my hat on. I don't entirely know what to make of them, to be honest. But, when I hear those stories, I nod my head and say, "Hmmm, that is indeed consistent with the way that I think God works in the world, and consistent with the Word that I think was spoken in the person of Jesus, and I can see how that story, regardless of whether it actually happened, adds nuance to my understanding of God relationship with humanity."

• David Nickol

The judgement that a claim is extraordinary really does depend on your frame of reference.

But from the viewpoint of historians trying to determine what "actually happened," to judge that (a) it's not implausible that God would cause such an event to happen and (b) therefore it is credible that the event "actually happened" is to assume what they are trying to determine. And a miracle is still an extraordinary event, even if an omnipotent God could easily cause it, because miracles are extremely rare (if not nonexistent).

The problem with accepting miraculous events in the Old and New Testament, including the alleged three hours of darkness coinciding with the crucifixion, is that such things don't happen today. I just found this headline:

ISIS 'Systematically Beheading Children' in Iraq; They Are 'Killing Every Christian They See,' Says Chaldean Leader

Were the sun to dim inexplicably over these areas of Iraq, or were ominous and inexplicable darkness to have descended over Auschwitz, where over a million people were murdered, for even a day, historians might have some slim precedent to say (without necessary accepting miracles), that the sun darkened sometimes when there were moral outrages. But I think it is only reasonable for historians to assume that things that may be deemed "miraculous" happen at some kind of constant rate. Jesus cured all kinds of diseases. He allegedly passed this power on to the Apostles, and (according to Acts) they continued to work miracles. And yet, popes and bishops today—successors to Peter and the Apostles—do not work miracles. Why not?

• Jim (hillclimber)

Regarding the ISIS stuff, I don't think belief in miracles makes the problem of evil any more (or less) difficult than it already is. I already struggle with the fact that God doesn't use natural (i.e. more or less expected) brushstrokes to paint deep evil out of the picture. If I allow that God also sometimes uses completely unexpected brushstrokes, it sort of doesn't surprise me that those also are not used to paint evil out of the picture. The nature of the brushstrokes and the subject of the painting are somewhat separable questions.

As for whether miracles should be uniformly distributed throughout the universe, I don't know. I don't expect musical accidentals to be uniformly distributed throughout a song. I expect them to occur at rare moments deserving of special attention. Or, to take a more scientific analogy, I'm not sure if I should expect the emergence of life from non-life to occur at moments that are uniformly distributed throughout space-time, or whether there are perhaps such things as privileged moments.

• David Nickol

The point I was trying to make is that reading the Bible, one gets the impression that miracles were commonplace in Old Testament and New Testament times. In more modern times, and especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, alleged miracles are so rare and so inadequately documented that it can be plausibly argued that they don't happen at all. It seems to me there are two very broad conclusions one can arrive at. One is that miracles used to be commonplace in Biblical times, but for some reason God doesn't intervene in history (or allow himself to be perceived as intervening in history) any longer. The other is that we should be extraordinarily skeptical about reports of miracles the documentation for which is two or more millennia old.

I do not consider myself an atheist, and I do not rule out the possibility of miracles. However, it seems to me that it is reasonable to apply the same standards to biblical accounts of miracles that we would apply to contemporary accounts. I am sure many of the "theists" on Strange Notions find no difficulty with believing that the miraculous was commonplace in biblical times and for some reason it is rare today. I, personally, find it hard to believe that God was constantly making his existence and presence known in the most dramatic ways in biblical times and for reasons known only to him has chosen to remain hidden since.

• Jim (hillclimber)

I think my perspective is mostly pretty similar to yours. I do agree that skepticism is entirely appropriate when it comes to literal interpretations of those ancient accounts. Only one thing I would add:

In addition to the "two broad conclusions one can arrive at" that you mention, I would say there is a third interpretation that one might maintain as a possibility in the back of one's mind. That fact that we (by most accounts) observe fewer miracles these days might say as much about our modern powers of perception as anything else. I believe that children, while hopelessly naive so many respects, are sometimes able to perceive things that we adults are not able to perceive. By analogy, it is not hard for me to imagine that the human race, at a more child-like, wonder-soaked stage of development, was able to more easily perceive some things that we no longer perceive easily, even if those things might still be right before our eyes.

• Sqrat

The judgement that a claim is extraordinary really does depend on your frame of reference.

.
In Father Barrons' video, he says, citing Aquinas, that the Eucharist is "in the strict sense" not a miracle, because there is nothing amazing about it. The change of wafer and and wine into the body and blood of Jesus is absolutely undetectable, hence there is nothing to amaze. But maybe Aquinas had it backwards. Isn't it especially amazing that the change is absolutely undetectable?

• Jim (hillclimber)

Maybe, but now we are off defining another word :)

The understanding of "amazing" that makes sense to me in this context is tied to a disorienting sense of surprise. Consecration of bread and wine occurs according to the very regular rhythm of the mass schedule, and so cannot be surprising. When it happens at mass, I never find myself saying, "Whoa, wait a minute, what just happened?" In that sense, I don't find it to be amazing.

• Sqrat

Well, I suppose once you've seen a wafer transformed into human flesh a few dozen times, right in front of you, in the twinkling of an eye, it does get to seem pretty routine. I do recall, however, my own disorienting sense of surprise when I read up on this whole "transubstantiation" business, and reflected on the fact that untold millions of Catholics apparently actually buy into it. It also seemed to me that this particular state of affairs revealed a deeper truth about Catholicism, and religious belief in general. So perhaps Father Barron is wrong about the Eucharist -- if the word "miracle" means what he says it it means, then surely there is a "miracle" involved with the Sacrament of the Eucharist after all.

• I do think you are on to something. People have talked about the scandal of the incarnation. The idea that God Himself would take on human form not only in a vision but day after day and year after year. Being born, getting hungry and tired, dealing with dirt and shit, all of humanity is there yet you are expected to believe that is God.

The Eucharist is the same except more difficult because we are actually there. We don't really see Jesus' humanity but we see the bread and wine in their ordinariness. Then we are expected to believe they have just become divine. Almost intentionally scandalous. No way to explain it other than, "God said it. I believe it. That settles it!"

• Sqrat

No way to explain it other than, "God said it. I believe it. That settles it!"

Yeah, pretty much. Of course, the Protestant holds that that's not what God meant, while the atheist holds that God didn't say it.

• Jim (hillclimber)

This is probably now getting too far afield of this OP, but we don't think it is trans*formed* into human flesh. We think it is tran*substantiated* into the body of Christ.

I'm not sure it is any more (or less) mysterious than what happens with I digest food and breathe air. Carbon and oxygen atoms are not transformed when they enter my body, but their significance changes. They were not part of me, and then their significance changes and they are part of me, and then later they are not part of me. Likewise, the carbohydrates in the wafer are not part of the body of Christ prior to the consecration, and then those exact same untransformed carbohydrates are part of the body of Christ, and then, at some point, they no longer are again. The relationship between identity and matter is mysterious, totally apart from any Catholic theology.

• Doug Shaver

The judgement that a claim is extraordinary really does depend on your frame of reference.

OK. My frame of reference does not say miracles are impossible. It does say that they are improbable. Does your frame of reference say otherwise?

• Jim (hillclimber)

Yes and no :-) I'll give a simple direct answer, and then I'll give a more nuanced answer.

My simple direct answer is that miracles are indeed definitionally improbable events (at least, according to my understanding of what the word means). Without improbability you can't have amazement, and without amazement you can't have a miracle. Of course, it should be uncontroversial to note that improbable things DO happen.

My longer, more nuanced answer would have to distinguish between marginal and conditional probability. To take a pedestrian improbable event as an example : If you are holding the winning ticket to yesterday's lotto and you have double-checked the numbers, then conditional on that data (or, given that frame of reference ), you can reasonably say, "It is very probable that I won the lotto yesterday". You can also still reasonably say, "it was very improbable that I would win the lotto", because by use of the past tense you are indicating a frame of reference where you didn't have the additional data of the apparently winning ticket in your hand. All this is just to point out that it is perfectly legitimate, in principle at least, to say things like: "There is a very low probability that X would have happened , and there is a very high probability that X did happen ."

As for me, I believe that miracles, generally speaking, do happen, but I have varying degrees of skepticism with regard to particular miracle claims, and that includes skepticism with regard to literal interpretation of many of the miracle stories in the Bible.

• Jim (hillclimber)

Let me add a note about why, from my perspective, it is "unconditionally probable" that miracles should occur sometimes. This prior belief doesn't derive so much from my personal experiences as it does from my sense of aesthetics. What I'm getting at is discussed nicely in this recent commentary on the children's book 'Goodnight Moon' . My unconditional belief in miracles is essentially an aesthetic judgement that the story of the universe is written with something analogous to those literary devices. In other words, if God is a good author (and I believe He is), then He should write that way (though, needless to say, with far greater subtlety and power).

A relevant excerpt from the piece:

After the moons, we go through the whole room and our love of repetition [*] is satisfied and we can track the little mouse and see the lights dimming in the illustrations. The page turns are beautifully paced and quite slow.

What a surprise, then, to find that there is a blank page with “Goodnight nobody” out of nowhere, sharing a spread with “Goodnight mush.” What a surprise, then, that the story does not end with the old lady whispering “hush” but goes out the window into the night.

Most picture books would close with that old lady — that’s the balanced choice. But we see the stars and feel the air — we’ve been sure we’re staying in but now we’re floating out. Why? And then back in for the ending of “Goodnight noises everywhere.”

...

How much deeper and more elegant that is than the neat symmetry we might expect.

[*] In place of "repetition", I might substitute: "natural laws". (And to be clear, note that neither I, nor the book, nor the review, disparages repetition / pattern / natural laws. Pattern is part of the beauty, it's just not the whole story.)

• David Nickol

Putting it in the simplest terms, comparing a book that argues God exists to a book that argues the historical Jesus did not exist is comparing apples to oranges. Yes, Christians believe Jesus was God, but it is extremely doubtful that if there were definitive proof (somehow) that Jesus never existed, Christians en masse would stop believing in God. Jews and Christians generally have no problem maintaining that they share a common belief in God, even though the Jews don't accept Jesus as God Incarnate.

So I find Richard Carrier to be substantially correct in objecting to your contention that he claims to prove that the "Christian God" does not exist.

• Matt Browwwwn

It's such a glaring problem that mythicists and Carrier don't see. This is precisely a form of scientism, except with math. Carrier is taking BT and applying it beyond its limits. He has no structure or method of judging primary or secondary sources. It merely becomes subjective guess work.

• Tim Dacey

I'm having trouble with this..

If S believes p and ~p given e, then there is definitely something wrong with S. Or, even worse, if Bayes Theorem *does* suggest that S is justified in believing p and ~p given e (I don't for second think it does), then I will quickly abandoned Bayesian views to save my self from such epistemological anarchism.

• StephenDaedalus

"For example, is the proposition “Jesus was divine” true? Well, that depends on the evidence. If you say, “Given Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected as related in the Gospels” then the proposition has probability one (i.e., it is true.) But if you say, “Given Jesus was a myth, created as a conspiracy to flummox the Romans and garner tithes” then the proposition has probability zero (i.e., it is false.)"

Why does it follow? Most gods have not existed historically as men on earth, but people still believed in their divinity. Brahman, Shiva and Allah for example, did not exist as historical people, but people still believe in their divinity.

Thomas Brodie (author of 'Beyond the Quest for the Historical jesus') is a Dominican brother who does not believe in a historical Jesus but does believe in a divine Jesus. The mythicist hypothesis usually includes the proposition that the earliest Christians located the passion in a heaven or other supernatural realm, and that this core belief was later embellished with historical dramatisation.

While it might seem odd to us now (hence the commonplace a priori dismissal of ahistoricism even as a possibility), there would be no reason to see a belief based on non-historical action as unusual in the context of the ancient world.