If You Learn Nothing Else about Bayes’ Theorem, Let It Be This

There are two things one learns from Bayes’ Theorem that are the windows to everything else Bayesian reasoning can ever teach you. And there is a lot it can teach you besides these two things. But here I’m cutting to the chase of the two that are most essential: theories cannot be argued in isolation, and prior assumptions matter.

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Hitler Homer Bible Christ: A Surprise New Book by Richard Carrier

While waiting for Sheffield to finish and release On the Historicity of Jesus (the book everyone is waiting for, presently projected for late March or early April), I decided to produce my own anthology of all my published papers on history. That volume, Hitler Homer Bible Christ: The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013, is now available, in print and kindle.

The publication description reads as follows (emphasis added):

Richard Carrier, Ph.D., philosopher, historian, blogger, has published a number of papers in the field of ancient history and biblical studies. He has also written several books and chapters on diverse subjects, and has been blogging and speaking since 2006. He is known the world over for all the above. But here, together for the first time, are all of Dr. Carrier’s peer reviewed academic journal articles in history through the year 2013, collected with his best magazine articles, research papers and blog posts on the same subjects. Many have been uniquely revised for this publication. Others are inaccessible except through libraries or paywalls. Twenty chapters include his seminal papers on the scandal of Hitler’s Table Talk, the Jerry Vardaman microletter farce, and the testimonies to Christ in Josephus, Tacitus, and Thallus, as well as Carrier’s journalistic foray into ancient pyramid quackery, his work on the historical & textual errancy of the bible, and more.

Cover of Hitler Homer Bible Christ. Olive or brown with dark greek falling leaves is the only graphic. The rest is just the title, subtitle at the top, and author at the bottom all in white lettering.The biggest attraction will be the fact that my peer reviewed paper showing that the reference to Christ in Tacitus is an interpolation, which is slated to appear in the academic journal Vigiliae Christianae later this year, is included in this volume, as well as my two other peer reviewed, academically published papers on the historicity question, the one on Thallus not having mentioned Jesus, and the other on the two references to Jesus in Josephus being interpolations (the one deliberate, the other accidental), published in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism and the Journal of Early Christian Studies, respectively.

Also included is my brief but now hard-to-find article for The History Teacher published years ago, and all the articles I published in The Skeptical Inquirer (on the FOX special promoting pyramidiocy, and the two articles on the Jerry Vardaman microletters debacle), and most interestingly for some, my game-changing, peer-reviewed article in the academic journal German Studies Review, exposing the dubious nature of the still-only English translation of Hitler’s Table Talk, largely bogus quotes from which make Hitler look more atheistic than he was. Of particular value to anyone who keeps seeing those quotes repeated and wants ready access to the definitive take-down. I have also included a new afterword on the impact that paper had on Hitler studies, and expanding the analysis to include all the passages you’ll find cited from the Table Talk (and even some quotations elsewhere) to argue Hitler was godless.

All of the above are hard to find or get. I only have the rights to publish them in an anthology of my own works. So I did.

I have also included several online articles, from my blog and elsewhere, many revised for this volume, to produce a handy collection of my best and most useful work in the field of history. The table of contents reads as follows:

– Doing History –

1 :: The Function of the Historian in Society

2 :: History Before 1950

3 :: Experimental History

4 :: B.C.A.D.C.E.B.C.E.

– History Done –

5 :: Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Heroes and Ghosts in Virgil, Homer, and Tso Ch’iu-ming

6 :: Herod the Procurator and Christian Apologetics

7 :: Herod the Procurator: Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?

8 :: On the Dual Office of Procurator and Prefect

– Debunking the Bogus –

9 :: Flash! Fox News Reports that Aliens May Have Built the Pyramids of Egypt!

10 :: Pseudohistory in Jerry Vardaman’s Magic Coins: The Nonsense of Micrographic Letters

11 :: More on Vardaman’s Microletters

12 :: Hitler’s Table Talk: Troubling Finds

– The Vexed Bible –

13 :: Ignatian Vexation

14 :: Pauline Interpolations

15 :: Luke vs. Matthew on the Year of Christ’s Birth

16 :: Mark 16:9-20 as Forgery or Fabrication

– The Troublesome Evidence for Jesus –

17 :: The Nazareth Inscription

18 :: Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death

19 :: Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200

20 :: The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44

In all, Hitler Homer clocks in at 395 pages.

I already have a contract to produce an audio version of Hitler Homer. Recording will likely begin in a month or so. The audiobook will thus be available probably mid-year. (Meanwhile, I spent most of last week in the studio finishing the recording of Proving History, which you can expect to be released on audio in just a few months. Sheffield wants to do an audio edition of On the Historicity of Jesus but so far hasn’t discussed arrangements with me, so alas, I have no idea when that will be available.)

Forgotten Books

I’ve just been given membership to an online research site that you might want to join, too. It’s called Forgotten Books, an online warehouse of over a million books dating back to the 1500s, and all the way up to the 1940s, all image-over-text editions, fully searchable and readable and downloadable in numerous formats. It’s not free, but it is affordable, and superior to Google Books in several respects.

I was given a free lifetime membership if I blogged about the site (no matter what I said, good or bad). But that benefit wouldn’t be worth anything if the site wasn’t worth using. And it definitely is of some use. And that’s worth knowing about. It has some defects that need fixing (and its management is working on those). But it has uses as well. I’ll summarize my thoughts on both counts. [Read more…]

Atwill’s Cranked-up Jesus

Joseph Atwill is one of those crank mythers I often get conflated with. Mythicists like him make the job of serious scholars like me so much harder, because people see, hear, or read them and think their nonsense is what mythicism is. They make mythicism look ridiculous. So I have to waste time (oh by the gods, so much time) explaining how I am not arguing anything like their theories or using anything like their terrible methods, and unlike them I actually know what I am talking about, and have an actual Ph.D. in a relevant subject from a real university.

Note that I have divided this article into two parts, the second (titled “Our Long Conversation”) is something you can easily skip (see the intro there for whether reading it will be of any interest to you). So although this post looks extraordinarily long, it’s really that second part that gives it such length. You can just read up to the beginning of that section though. You don’t have to continue beyond that to get the overall point. [Read more…]

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 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.

Brown Out: A Christian Reviews Proving History

My latest book Proving History has been negatively reviewed by Kevin Brown (a Christian book reviewer [he has since deleted that post] who confesses he is “not a mathematician or historian by anyone’s standard,” although I must note that one only needs strong primary school math to understand and evaluate the concepts in the book). Although he doesn’t actually have anything bad to say about the overall thesis of the book (the application of Bayes’ Theorem to history generally and Jesus studies specifically, it’s many discussions of method, and so on, beyond vague expressions of uncertainty). His objections are more of a Christian apologetical bent: he doesn’t like certain conclusions about a few random minor points made throughout the book, which he cherry picks because he thinks they are egregiously false, and he uses this to build a comforting narrative for himself that I must not know what I’m talking about, if I don’t agree with him on those few scattered items.

You can get an idea of his bias when he tells you my other book Why I am Not a Christian is “appalling tripe” and “by far the worst book I’ve read on the subject matter of atheism” and other colorful things, all because he despises the most commonsensical of atheist arguments (that a God who wanted x would do what was needed to achieve x). Brown is not a great thinker. And his intemperance and lack of objectivity show here. So when he gets to reviewing Proving History, you can expect a less than objective approach, and a similar sense of hyperbolic contempt. Indeed, for not liking the book (for no actually good reason, as we’ll see), he appears to be more obsessed with attacking it than than with any other book he has ever reviewed (he has so far written six articles on Proving History, where his previous record for any other book is only four, and that only once in twenty or thirty titles). [Read more…]

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.

Historicity News: Thallus et Alius

I have a slew of things to report. I was thinking of doing some book reviews, for example, but I am not going to have the time. With my England trip coming up and my push to hunker down and finish On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, I will have much less time for blogging over the next two months. So I’m just going to summarize some things of late, including a new publication of mine, new books by others, and major events in the field, over the course of three posts.

First, my peer reviewed paper on Thallus has just been published (my paper on Josephus is soon to follow). The full citation is Richard Carrier, “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 8 (2011-2012): 185-91. [It was available online, as part of Volume 8, as a downloadable PDF, but only until it appeared in print]. The conclusion is that Thallus never mentioned Jesus in any capacity, and must therefore be removed from all lists of authors attesting to Jesus. In fact, we have what is certainly a direct quotation of what Thallus said in Eusebius: that in the year 32 “the sun was eclipsed, Bithynia was struck by an earthquake, and in the city of Nicaea many buildings fell.”

If anyone wants to update Wikipedia’s article on Thallus to quote and/or cite this peer reviewed article, please feel free. It currently quotes my very old online essay on the matter; whereas the new paper is not only peer reviewed, but contains additional arguments confirming the conclusion, improves various points, and skips over unnecessary digressions.

Second, in yesterday’s post “Understanding Bayesian History” I responded to a scientist’s critique of my book Proving History, and he posted a well written reply in comments there, which I much appreciated and to which I have responded in kind, and that exchange makes a lot of things clearer, especially as to my objectives in writing PH and how to improve upon it, and regarding what his concerns actually were. I consider this a model of constructive dialogue, so it’s worth looking at.

Next I’ll report on two new books I’ve read that relate to the question of historicity.

Understanding Bayesian History

So far I know of only two critiques of my argument in Proving History that actually exhibit signs of having read the book (all other critiques can be rebutted with three words: read the book; although in all honesty, even the two critiques that engage the book can be refuted with five words: read the book more carefully).

As to the first of those two, I have already shown why the criticisms of James McGrath are off the mark (in McGrath on Proving History), but they at least engage with some of the content of my book and are thus helpful to address. I was then directed to a series of posts at Irreducible Complexity, a blog written by an atheist and evolutionary scientist named Ian who specializes in applying mathematical analyses to evolution, but who also has a background and avid interest in New Testament studies.

Ian’s critiques have been summarized and critiqued in turn by MalcolmS in comments on my reply to McGrath, an effort I appreciate greatly. I have added my own observations to those in that same thread. All of that is a bit clunky and out of order, however, so I will here replicate it all in a more linear way. (If anyone knows of any other critiques of Proving History besides these two, which actually engage the content of the book, please post links in comments here. But only articles and blog posts. I haven’t time to wade through remarks buried in comment threads; although you are welcome to pose questions here, which may be inspired by comments elsewhere.)

Ian’s posts (there are now two, A Mathematical Review of “Proving History” by Richard Carrier and An Introduction to Probability Theory and Why Bayes’s Theorem is Unhelpful in History; he has promised a third) are useful at least in covering a lot of the underlying basics of probability theory, although in terms that might lose a humanities major. But when he gets to discussing the argument of my book, he ignores key sections of Proving History where I actually already refute his arguments (since they aren’t original; I was already well aware of these kinds of arguments and addressed them in the book).

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