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Miracles & Historical Method

Fan photo of Dr. Carrier in shadow before stage screen showing slide that says 'Conclusion: Christians Were Big Ass Liars'Video of my talk for this year’s Skepticon is now available on YouTube. See Miracles and Historical Method. Description:

Carrier talks about how to think critically about history generally, using miracles as an entertaining example. Builds on his talk last year on Bayes’ Theorem, but this time it’s more about method than math, and surveys a lot of real-world examples of miracles from the ancient world (pagan, Jewish and Christian). Summarizes some of what is covered in much more detail in his book.

Comments

  1. Paul D. says

    That was entertaining and informative, Dr. Carrier. The first section was particularly fascinating — it’s interesting to see all the pagan miracle stories we would have to accept as true if we used the same criteria that apologists use for assessing the Gospel stories.

  2. evanhubbard says

    Could you relate what you said in the talk to William Lane Craig’s take on the probability of the resurrection (as I understand it from various youtube debates), which is that what we consider probable or improbable depends on our preconceptions. If you believe in the existence of God, then the prior probability of miracle claims is much higher. Given the existence of God, the probability that he would raise Jesus from the dead is not at all unlikely. Only by having a bias against the existence of God would you assign it a low probability.
    I feel like your talk, if I fully grasped it, probably already addresses this sort of argument, but this is all new to me, and I was wondering if you could give me a response to this explicitly (or point me to another resource, perhaps somewhere in Proving History).
    Anyway, thanks for another interesting presentation.

    • says

      There is no rational case to be made that the prior probability of miracle hypotheses is at all high. And given that “miracle” is not needed to explain any of the evidence, how low it’s prior is doesn’t ultimately matter. IMO, even if we were convinced God existed, the resurrection is still not credible. And Bayes’ Theorem shows why.

      To get the full breakdown on this (and how to bypass that “preconceptions” claim, which confuses “background assumptions” with “background knowledge,” a common abuse of Bayes’ Theorem, sneaking faith in as evidence without calling it that) read my chapters on the resurrection & origins of Christianity in The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity (the latter also has a related discussion of the prior probability of a god as cause…an important and often glossed-over distinction from “miracle,” a point I made in my Skepticon talk; that’s in my chapter on the design argument, pp. 279-84). These tuck the Bayesian math into endnotes, but the body of the argument is intrinsically Bayesian, and just stated in plain English. The matter of prior probability is discussed in the TCD chapter; and the matter of why the evidence is only likely on non-god causal theories is treated even more directly in the TEC chapter (although of course I discuss it in both).

    • says

      ‘Given the existence of God, the probability that he would raise Jesus from the dead is not at all unlikely.’

      Does William Lane Craig really say that?

      Is that the same William Lane Craig who says that the disciples had absolutely no reason to think that God would raise Jesus from the dead?

  3. lpetrich says

    Nice talk. I found that account of Alexander of Abonutichus especially fun, even though we only have Lucian of Samosata’s account of him.

    I think that it’s worth mentioning that these miracles are related by historians that we use as sources — these are not marginal figures. One can ask: why believe their non-miraculous parts but not their miracles?

    That brings to mind another interesting feature of ancient histories, one that I read somewhere even though I forgot where. It’s that overall ancient histories have three main phases without clear boundaries between them:
    1. Era of gods and creation
    2. Era of heroes
    3. Era of ordinary people
    One can see this in the Bible, Greek mythology, and various other places. The idea of lowly origins is a modern one, it seems.

    • says

      There is a lot of blurring of lines between those three “eras” (e.g. ancient paradoxography and hagiography disregarded that division altogether), so it’s not a terribly useful scheme unfortunately, the more so as sober historians struggled to rewrite the mythical stuff into something plausible (thus making it look like ordinary history…when in fact it was never true to begin with; Plutarch’s biography of Romulus, for example).

      As to the question “why believe their non-miraculous parts but not their miracles?” that relates to Stephen Law’s contamination argument (see Evidence, Miracles and the Existence of Jesus). There he points out (although a reader can miss it) that this is measured by degrees…the more and greater absurdities in an account, the less the mundane stuff surrounding it can be trusted as well. But that means it’s not black and white.

      So, for example, the absurdities in Josephus’ account of the Jewish War are very few and not overly ridiculous (and sometimes even reported correctly, e.g. “some say…” rather than “it so happened that…”), so although those do indeed lower our confidence in the rest of his account, they don’t lower it so far as to throw them all on the side of “dubious.” They remind us to be cautious, insofar as they prove his methods and sources and critical acumen were not of as high a caliber as we would expect from a historian today. But cautious is not the same as doubting.

      But we also have to take note of variances in prior probability by type of claim rather than just a specific author’s previous practice: a mundane claim will always have a higher prior than a wild claim, even when they appear in the same author. Thus, if an author makes a wild and a mundane claim, we might have a priori sufficient reason to doubt the one and not the other (since they will have a huge disparity in priors), so long as the problem of contamination doesn’t overwhelm. Priors can also vary for mundane claims. For example, plain political facts (like who reigned where when) were easily verifiable by reliable means at the time, whereas facts that could only be known by a third hand oral report are far more prone to being legends altogether, or highly inaccurate, and thus start off with lower priors even though there is nothing wild about them.

      Thus, it often comes down to how much we trust a specific author (based on what of his claims we’ve verified or what we can verify of his methods and sources and so on) or a particular type of claim (such as plain political facts more readily trusted than much-harder-to-verify “stories”). But miracles have such low priors, I suspect there is presently no ancient author we trust enough to outweigh that low prior on the evidence scale, even if we trust them on the more mundane matters; and in practice we often don’t completely trust them even on that. Read Michael Grant’s very sobering Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation for example.

  4. Brian E says

    Hi Richard,
    Interesting talk. I, perhaps naively, thought that a miracle could never be accepted by a historian. Simply because, a miracle is the least probable explanation, and there are always other, more probable explanations, and the historian always uses the most probable explanation of the data. What is the most probable may be open to argument, but the least probable, a miracle, will never be the most probable.
    P.s, do you know how to get your blog and P.Z.’s blog to display normally in an iPad, like Ophelia’s and other FTBers? It’s almost unusable in this mode. Thanks.

    • says

      That is essentially what I explained in my talk, too. In practice, there has never been and is unlikely ever to be sufficient evidence to confirm a miracle occurred in antiquity. More recent times, however, afford the possibility of doing that, owing to vastly greater evidence-generation and preservation and much greater availability of documented and skilled inquiry (I actually give an example of this in Proving History, pp. 41-45, 54-60). But then, that’s why miracles suddenly disappear wherever these resources are available. “Miracles” can only exist when you don’t need evidence to prove they do. Which is pretty much a dead giveaway that there aren’t any real miracles.

      P.S. Regarding the display issue, first make sure you don’t have the option switched on your device (you can usually choose to use the normal mode or the mobile device mode in your browser). If you have it switched to mobile mode and still there is a problem, send me another comment and I’ll forward it to our webmaster. Unless the problem resolves itself (I’m going to check my settings, which should not have changed, but they have been tinkering with the site lately so who knows).

    • Brian E says

      Hi Richard, display issue sorted, thanks.

      This discussion reminds me of a guy who a few years back, on a newspaper article comments section was claiming that there was no need to argue for the existence of God, as he’d already provided a (relatively) recent miracle at Fatima (I think), in which many thousands of people, including journalists and so on, had witnessed the sun doing circles in the sky. So QED, god exists and he’s Catholic.

      I noted at the time, that firstly the rest of the world didn’t report this event, nor the associated cataclysmic convulsions that would accompany the earth bouncing rapidly to and fro that this phenomenon would entail. So, billions missed it, but many thousand, ardent catholics, who’d been staring at the sun for some time, got wobbly at the knees and started telling each other it was a miracle! But miracle more probable, I’m sure. Who needs faith?

  5. says

    Hi Richard. I just happened to finish watching, “Are Christians Delusional?” Richard Carrier Skepticon 3, when I googled you, found your website, and found your blog. I very much enjoyed your presentation and I look forward to reading The Christian Delusion and your other books (as well as watch your other videos). In, fact, I’m not sure how I managed to become an atheist a few years ago without becoming familiar with you, but better late than never.

  6. says

    That was the least professional history presentation I have ever seen.

    I LOVED IT! I soooo have to make it to one of these shindigs so I can buy that Harry Potter looking dude with all the booksmarts one of those beer things/ ;)

  7. Jon of Brisbane says

    Halfway through your talk, Dr. Carrier. So far it rather nicely compliments your chapter about “Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable” in “The Christian Delusion” book.

    Just one question. You ever heading ‘downunder’ to Aus and bringing Skepticon with you? We already have the atheist convention here (it was gonna be – in Melbourne 2012 – , apparently, the only time that the ’4 Horseman’ of the new atheism were all gonna be in one place at one time, but we all know Hitch got cancer), but it would be great to have something like what you got with Skepticon.

    Anyway, you’d be pretty welcome here. I must add though, religion simply is not as big a thing in Aus as it is in the US, though it certainly does have its fair share of influence here.

    • says

      Would love to do gigs in Australia. Alas, can’t afford the airfare. Several groups there have expressed interest, but lack funds to bring me out. So if you ever find any who would be willing and able to put together the funding, I’m game.

      A really ambitious advocate might put together something like a Ministry of International Magical Cooperation and have me tour several groups spaced over several cities and they then split the cost of airfare, and just put me up on local couches or guestrooms and feed me while I’m there. Planning that sounds like a lot of work, though.

  8. says

    Richard, I’m a huge fan of your work but I have a question about your description of the early Christians as being schizotypal and hallucinating their visions of Jesus. Do you really think this is the case or are you just using that description to provide a more scientific explanation as opposed to saying these people were just “making shit up”?

    I mean, you don’t really believe that Joseph Smith was actually hallucinating the angel Maroni do you? Seems to me you provide plenty of evidence to suggest that the climate of that period was a strong enough motivator for people that were so inclined to fabricate exactly the type of story that developed into Christianity.

    • says

      No, Smith was almost certainly a con man. But then, we have much better documentation for the history of the Mormon movement from the very beginning, so we can actually prove things about it that we cannot for the first century of Christianity, whose documentation is piss poor, to put it mildly.

      I have discussed both models of Christian origin in various places: the deliberate fabrication (represented as revelatory) and the schizotypal cult (actual hallucinations). Given the evidence we have, either is possible. We have precedents for both in the history and anthropology of religions, and evidence for both in the letters of Paul. So it’s undecidable. Thus, generally, I usually just pick one in a given venue and run with that, to avoid the complexity of having to juggle in a limited time the analyses and arguments of two completely different models of Christian origins.

      But Christian origins should be distinguished from Christian mythology. The Gospels are certainly fabricated myths. But the Gospels, and the myths they contained, were invented well after the religion began. The religion unquestionably began as a revelatory cult (its founders claiming to have mystically communicated with Jesus, thereby getting their marching orders and basic creed). So the only question is did they actually have visions or were they only pretending to have them.

      I discuss the distinction and why we might never be able to tell them apart in chapter ten of Not the Impossible Faith. I shall discuss the schizotypal cult possibility much more (with extensive internal and comparative documentation) in my next book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ (though with still a nod to the alternative as a possibility to consider even there).

  9. says

    Richard,

    Thanks for your response.

    I guess I’m working backwards with your books. I’m currently reading The Christian Delusion. Very anxious to read On The Historicity Of Jesus when it comes out. I’ll have to check out Not the Impossible Faith.

    I became aware of you through The Nature Of Existence documentaries. I think those films give a fantastic insight to the vast array of beliefs that are present in this day and age. Your task of challenging many of those is daunting and I commend you for your tireless persistence. I hope to see you participate in more debates in the upcoming future. I think people like Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, P.Z. Meyers and yourself are playing a pivotal role in challenging those religious beliefs that were thought to be off limits for so long. The battle may not be won in our lifetime but thanks to your efforts, the foundations of those beliefs are starting to crumble. Keep up the good work.

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