Lataster on Mythicism and Theism: A Request for My Readers

Cover of Raphael Lataster's new book There Was No Jesus, There Is No God. Cover art looks like an artist's rendering of blue spacedust and a black hole sucking everything in.I have a request for all my readers. There is a new book summarizing a case that Jesus might not have existed, which has received some positive reviews (from the Arizona Atheist and John Loftus; also reader reviews at Amazon), and some predictably negative ones (from the nefarious Christian apologist J.P. Holding, whose promised Part 2 does not seem to have materialized yet, and an even longer harangue by Nick Peters).

The book I’m talking about was published by a doctoral student in religious studies, Raphael Lataster (more on the soon-to-be Dr. Lataster here), and entitled There Was No Jesus, There Is No God: A Scholarly Examination of the Scientific, Historical, and Philosophical Evidence & Arguments for Monotheism, based on his master’s thesis. The finished book you can buy for a very reasonable price [print] [kindle]. I have not had (and likely won’t have) the time to thoroughly vet the book, much less check it against the copious Christian apologetical attacks on it (by Holding and Peters, linked above). I did read enough to note that there were some problems with it, but I’m curious to know if those were the only ones, and if anyone else would notice them (so I won’t mention them now).

The book actually is in two parts, despite being quite a short read. The second part summarizes a case against traditional arguments for theism generally (not the historicity of Jesus specifically), and some of the approaches there are novel. And humorous. So even if you aren’t interested in the historicity debate, you might be interested in Lataster’s approach to debunking theism and theistic apologetics more generally. Moreover, in both parts he adapts my work to argue from a Bayesian perspective, which may interest yet more readers keen to test that out.

So I’d like as many of my readers as seem inclined to read either or both parts of Lataster’s book and comment here on what they think, positive or negative. Though if negative, please give Lataster a hand by being specific so he has a chance to revise the work for a second edition, which I know he is interested in doing. This is basically my way of crowdsourcing an opinion and assessment of this book, since I haven’t the time to study it thoroughly myself. I’d especially love it if anyone compared their reading of Lataster’s book with its Christian critics, as linked above (quite a task, as their critiques are very long, and possibly tedious and frustrating, if history serves, so I’ll be especially impressed by anyone who voluntarily endures that and reports back here on their findings). Are the Christians being fair? Or are they doing a hatchet job? Specific examples of either would be helpful to Lataster.

Note: I am about to head out for Skepticon, where I’ll be AFK much of the time, so comments that post here might not go live until middle of next week. But rest assured they will be appreciated, and will post eventually (as long as they are polite and on topic).

Now You Can Wear Even More Bayes’ Theorem!

Picture of the Odds Form Bayesian mug (white mug with artsy black text) offered at Richard Carrier's Marvelous Amusements shop at Cafe Press.Did you say Odds Form? Shirt? Car Flag? Panties? Hell yeah.

I just finished loading my old Cafe Press store with tons of different shirts and other odds and ends featuring my Bayesian graphic, which uses imaginative rather than standard mathematical notation (as I reported last week, you can get jewelry with it from SurlyRamics).

I also duplicated most items with a cool graphic design of the Odds Form of Bayes’ Theorem (in standard mathematical notation, but artful font). Because a lot of people are fans of the Odds Form. No joke…it has actual vocal fans. It’s also the form I use to run the math in my upcoming book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you want to know what the difference is and what the Odds Form equation means and how to use it, see Proving History (index, “Bayes’ Theorem, Odds Form”). Like with the other graphic (as I explained last week), you have to assume b (background knowledge) is in the givens of every term (a common assumption mathematicians allow).

Picture of women's cap-T shirt with Odds Form Bayesian graphic across the chest. White shirt with black shoulders and neckline.Above right is a pic of the Odds Form mug I’m selling. It actually looks pretty awesome. Likewise the women’s Cap-T (below right).

To check out the full range of products, and help support my work by buying some, visit Richard Carrier’s Marvelous Amusements. Note that many items actually have color options at the purchasing page (so it’s not just all black or white). If you have ideas for other products I could develop and offer there, feel free to recommend them in comments here. Just note that I’m limited by the stock and capabilities of Cafe Press.

I have also included some Solon’s Commandments materials, as some fans requested I do many months ago, after I wrote about them in That Christian Nation Nonsense (Gods Bless Our Pagan Nation). Cafe Press doesn’t offer the option of an inscribed plastic plate, so you would have to get the mini-poster and put it in a hard plastic casement or sheath from a local office supply store–or else buy the expensive framed print option (although that does look quite nice). Junior high and high school students who feel like living dangerously can even bring a Solon’s Commandments lunch bag to school.

Want to Literally Wear Bayes’ Theorem?

Picture of the Bayesian SurlyRamic: shows Bayes' Theorem, graphically arranged in an attractive way, black text in haly of white on black ceramic circle.Surly Amy has kindly met my request to create a SurlyRamic of Bayes’ Theorem. I designed the graphic for her, and she has made the product. You can check it out here, and buy one if you are keen. In the interests of art (to make it look elegant and not a busy mess), I took two liberties: I didn’t put the two expressions in the denominator inside brackets, but just stacked them on either side of a plus sign to indicate that (obviously) the multiplications have to be completed before the addition. I also left out the variable b for background knowledge, though that is commonly done even by mathematicians. You should understand that it’s present in every single term (see my Bayesian Calculator for an explanation of this and the rest of the equation). For example, P(h|e) represents P(h|e & b) and P(h) represents P(h|b), and so on.

Now we can totally geek out the Bayesians.

Craig vs. Law on the Argument from Contamination

In a recent attempt to rebut a peer reviewed philosophy paper by Stephen Law on the methodology of Jesus studies, which challenges the historicity of Jesus (hence my interest), William Lane Craig comes up with something so awful it would be worthy of a young earth creationist website. Maybe I’m just losing my patience with Craig’s specious, fallacious and dishonest method of arguing. Or maybe he really is getting worse at this.

The article I’m talking about is Craig’s recent Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth (n.d.). Which is supposed to be a response to Law’s Evidence, Miracles and the Existence of Jesus (which was published in Faith and Philosophy 28.2 [April 2011]: 129-51). In his inept reply, Craig gets Bayesian reasoning wrong and conceals key facts from his readers. It looks more like a con than a sincere attempt to educate. [Read more…]

A Childish Book Review: Stephanie Louise Fisher and the Travesty of Not Getting It

Another baffle clearing for today, I’m finally getting to an embarrassingly childish review of Proving History by Stephanie Louise Fisher (a doctoral student in biblical studies). Her review (published through that nutter R. Joseph Hoffmann’s website…and I’m not throwing “nutter” around lightly, I genuinely think he might be insane) is ironically titled An Exhibition of Incompetence: Trickery Dickery Bayes. Ironically, because she betrays her incompetence in logic and mathematics and reading comprehension throughout, and yet is claiming I’m the one who is incompetent. Her review is also close to libelous and on at least two occasions overtly dishonest.

The immaturity of the review, with its gratuitous insults and intemperance and slanders and complete failure to actually engage with the book, gave it a low priority for me, since it really just discredits itself to any mature reader. But now I have time to cover it. Even right off the bat, a review written like this demonstrates no sense of irony in its author who opens with the claim that they are the one “drawing attention to [my] unprofessional attitudes and prejudices.” Her absurdly repetitious claims of my alleged incompetence characterize the whole thing, despite my having a Ph.D. in the history of ancient religion and philosophy from a top ranked university, and a published background in mathematical arguments (in peer reviewed journals no less), as well as official training in statistics, calculus and electronics engineering…and despite my book having been formally peer reviewed by a professor of mathematics and a professor of biblical studies. (Note that Fisher, at present, and so far as I can discern, can claim none of these qualifications.)

Certainly, claims of incompetence have to be backed up with considerable evidence in the face of such conditions and qualifications. Fisher provides none. Let’s look at what she does argue. [Read more…]

A Well-Deserved Nod to Aviezer Tucker

Front cover of Aviezer Tucker's book Our Knowledge of the PastAfter I published Proving History a reader said I should check out Aviezer Tucker’s book Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography, since it appeared to back up the entire core thesis of my book. I am amazed and ashamed that I did not discover this book sooner. It must not have been indexed well in databases, since my searches for Bayesian historiography did not discover it. I just finished reading it, and while I wait for more opportune times to blog on other issues coming up, I thought I’d post a little about this.

Tucker is a prominent and widely published philosopher (see his bio and cv). We have at least two things in common: we both did graduate work at Columbia University, and we both think historical reasoning is fundamentally Bayesian. As some might know, the subtitle of my book is Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, and though the study of Jesus is its principle example, the overall thesis is that all history is Bayesian and all historians should learn Bayes’ Theorem and how to apply it to their own thinking to improve their reasoning, research, and argumentation.

Tucker makes the same argument. His approach is deeper and more philosophical, more about making the point that historical reasoning is already Bayesian, and that this explains everything from consensus to disagreement in the historical community. My book makes that argument, too, but is more about the practical application of this conclusion, and providing tools and advice for how historians can make use of Bayesian reasoning to improve what they do. Tucker delves more deeply into philosophy and probability theory and as such his book is essentially an extension of my sixth chapter (which goes into more depth on points made earlier in my book).

That’s why I regret not having known of his book before now. It’s a great shame that Proving History does not cite it, and I am writing this review now to redress that gap. OKP provides solid support for the core thesis of PH, and is the first book I know that makes the case I do (and thought I was alone in making). Others had discussed Bayes’ Theorem in the context of historical reasoning, but always skeptically or inconclusively (e.g. see PH, p. 304, n. 28). Tucker appears to be the first to understand that in fact historical reasoning is Bayesian, and to argue the point explicitly. It thus provides another foundation (and independent corroboration) for my main conclusions. It was also a prestigious peer reviewed academic work, published by Cambridge University Press in 2004 (I had my book peer reviewed as well, but my publisher is less known for that).

Owners of Proving History might want to pen Tucker’s name and book title into the margins somewhere (it should certainly have gotten a nod in note 3 of chapter four, on page 306, and probably in my discussion on page 49 as well, perhaps where I mention the precedents of applying Bayesian reasoning in law and archaeology).

The leading merits of OKP are that Tucker grounds you in the history of historiography and philosophy of history, he treats in greater detail the issues of historical consensus and disagreement (with many erudite examples), he addresses several leading problems in the philosophy of history, and he cites and adapts debates and discussions of Bayesianism in the philosophy of science and applies them to history the same way I do (only he again in more detail): by demonstrating that science and history are fundamentally the same discipline, only applied to data-sets of widely differing reliability.

As Tucker says in his central chapter (ch. 3, “The Theory of Scientific Historiography”), “I argue that the interpretation of Bayesianism that I present here is the best explanation of the actual practices of historians” and that “Bayesian formulae can even predict in most cases the professional practices of historians” (p. 134), and he gives good brief explanations of prior probability and likelihood (what I call consequent probability) in the context of historical thinking, and uses real-world examples to illustrate his point. His chapters 1 and 2 cover the background of the philosophy and epistemology of history, and remaining chapters apply the results of chapter three to address three major debates in that field: explaining disagreement among historians (ch. 4), resolving questions of causal explanation in history (ch. 5), and exploring the limits of historical knowledge and method (ch.6). He then wraps it all up with a conclusion (ch. 7). There is also an extensive bibliography and index. Throughout his book, Tucker aims to refute postmodernist and hyper-skeptical approaches to historical knowledge, and in that regard makes a good supplement to McCullagh (whom I do cite in PH).

For me, the most notable facts are that we did not know of each other, yet we independently came to the same conclusion that all historical reasoning is fundamentally Bayesian, and Tucker is a well-established philosopher and his book is by a major peer reviewed academic press. Both facts add weight and authority to my overall conclusion in Proving History. And that’s always nice to have.

Two Bayesian Fallacies

At INR3 in Kamloops I spoke on applying Bayesian logic to the study of Jesus along with the same principles we apply to dead religions (so as to avoid the “don’t offend the Christians” reaction to controversial claims…claims that would not be controversial if Jesus was not the object of worship of billions of loud, influential people). In Q&A philosopher Louise Antony challenged my application of Bayes’ Theorem to historical reasoning with a series of technical complaints, especially two fallacies commonly voiced by opponents of Bayesianism. I was running out of time (and there was one more questioner to get to) so I explained that I answered all her stated objections in my book Proving History (and I do, at considerable length).

But I thought it might be worth talking about those two fallacies specifically here, in case others run into the same arguments and need to know what’s fishy about them. [Read more…]

Bayesian Atheism Even Lowder

Yesterday’s post inspired someone to point me to another gem in the same category: the ongoing work of Jeffery Jay Lowder at The Secular Outpost on Bayesian Arguments for Atheism and theism. He has a long archive on that topic there and continues to post on debates in religion analyzing them in Bayesian terms. Though his posts are generally at a moderate and not beginner’s level of difficulty, nevertheless a lot of valuable insight is there, and many examples of how to test and frame arguments in religious debates using Bayesian reasoning. Even when he’s wrong, you can learn a lot by thinking about how to articulate what you think his mistake is using the same Bayesian concepts.

Lowder has even assembled a getting-started bibliography of his best posts on how to frame and improve evidential arguments for naturalism using Bayes’ Theorem in his Index of Evidential Arguments for Atheism. This and the ongoing entries he adds on Bayesian reasoning in atheism are definite must-haves on any bookmark list for Bayesian atheism. Enjoy!

Bayesian Atheism

James Lindsay has been doing some great blogging on how to apply Bayesian reasoning to model John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith (or OTF). A while ago I asked for recommendations of bloggers that often write about Bayes’ Theorem for a general audience (see Bayesian Blogging), and a few came up there. This is another.

Cover of The Christian DelusionFormulating and extensively defending the OTF is Loftus’ greatest contribution to the philosophy of religion and atheism. His best and most thorough treatment appears as chapter four in The Christian Delusion (a book I always recommend anyway as it contains lots of great chapters by great authors; and two by me). He is writing a whole book on it now. It should be out this year (I’ve seen advanced drafts and it’s good; I’ll blog it when you can buy it). The OTF is featured at Iron Chariots (which provides examples of looser expressions of the concept throughout history) and Loftus discusses it often at Debunking Christianity.

The basic idea is that you can only have a rational faith if you test it by the same standards you apply to all other competing faiths; yet when you do that, your religion tests as false as the others, and the same reasons you use to reject those become equally valid reasons to reject yours. Though this idea has been voiced before, Loftus is the first to name it, rigorize it, and give it an extensive philosophical defense; moreover, by doing so, he is the first to cause a concerted apologetic to arise attempting to dodge it, to which he could then respond. The end result is one of the most effective and powerful arguments for atheism there is. It is, in effect, a covering argument that subsumes all other arguments for atheism into a common framework.

Cover of God Doesn't; We DoLindsay, meanwhile, is an expert mathematician and author of God Doesn’t; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges (2012). His blog of the same title treats a number of issues in support of that book and its argument. I don’t always agree with him. But his blogging on Bayes’ Theorem is great. He started by talking about how Loftus’ OTF can be formulated using Bayes’ Theorem, to show why it can’t be dodged the way Christian apologists want. This led to further blogging on the subject, including a Bayesian analysis of “faith” in general. It’s worth checking out.

The first of these (on which the others build) is:

Here much of his argument is backed formally by my Bayesian models in The End of Christianity (edited by Loftus) for Christianity as a religion (chapter two) and for the design argument generally (chapter twelve); where most of the math is in the endnotes but the Bayesian logic is made explicit in each. These chapters especially explain why the evidence has a much higher consequent probability (a higher “likelihood” in sci-speak) on naturalism than on any kind of theism (much less Christian theism).

Combine those with Lindsay’s post and you should get a clear understanding why atheism is true and Bayesian reasoning proves it. Lindsay’s treatment will be especially helpful in understanding how atheists think like Bayesians all the time even when they don’t know it (and how Christians, in contrast, are really awful Bayesians). I give other examples of Bayesian atheism near the end of my talk Bayes’ Theorem: Lust for Glory (which is still my best intro to BT for beginners), which can supplement all this.

Lindsay continued blogging under the tag “Math” and what’s there so far is all Bayes’ Theorem stuff. Maybe that won’t always be the case, but keeping tabs on that tagged subject going forward might lead you to more gems about Bayesian reasoning. So far there are three other posts:

  • A Bit More Clarity on Bayes’s Theorem and Loftus’s Outsider Test for Faith (which shows how a BT-formulated OTF forces believers to confront facts that plain descriptions of the OTF might not; in short, it’s the probability of the evidence, and not just the prior probability, that’s the problem, although the OTF shows both are a problem for any honest believer)
  • Continuing My Bayesian Argument–The Role of Evidence (where he defends the OTF against accusations that it would lead to weird conclusions in other domains, which a BT analysis shows is actually not true; although he incorrectly applies the term a priori here: the prior probability in the OTF is not a priori, but based on background evidence regarding the number of observed religious faiths; a priori knowledge is by definition not based on any such evidence, and in particular neither are a priori probabilities; for an actual example of the latter, see my note 8, pp. 406-07, in TEC)
  • Defining Faith via Bayesian Reasoning (which builds a Bayesian definition of faith, when faith is used in any sense other than as a synonym of belief; this also provides an example of how many of Loftus’ rebuttals of critics of the OTF can be framed in Bayesian terms to show why he is right and they are not)

Good stuff so far. So I’m adding this to my list of Bayesian bloggers worth keeping an eye on. Another to add is Jeff Lowder.

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.