I’m sick and tired of the way that extremist conservative claims about history – such as that Abraham Lincoln actually existed – are taken seriously, but serious, well-thought-out, well evidenced and reasonable claims – like the claim that Richard Carrier does not exist – are demonised. This is manifestly unfair. As Tim McGrew has recently shown, pure Bayesian probability gives us excellent reasons to doubt this strong claim:
The initial odds that Richard Carrier exists are – let’s be generous – a hundred to one in favor of the proposition.
Part of the definition of Richard Carrier is that he is supposed to be a scholar with a Ph. D. in History. He is also supposed to be relatively young, which makes him one of, say, 3,000 or so History Ph. D.s to have been minted in the past five years. These factors will become important as we proceed.
Now we throw some of the other factors into the mix. Richard Carrier (if he exists) is a Jesus mythicist, someone who disbelieves in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth as a real person in space and time. Of the 3,000 or so History Ph.D.s minted in the last five years, and bracketing Carrier for the moment so as not to beg any questions, how many are mythicists? It’s a pretty safe bet that the number is close to zero. Let’s be generous, however, and suppose that there are 30, all of them devout mythicists (though in secret, for fear of damaging their careers). But – and this is the point we must dwell on – if the internet atheist community wanted to create a superhero who could defeat the Christians by his superior credentials, would we not expect them to invest him with a doctorate in History and, at the same time, have him endorse, nay, vindicate, the mythicist position? Surely this is not very improbable, say, even odds (for the mythicist position is very well represented online). And that the internet atheists should invent such a character, though it might seem a bit far-fetched, is not really that unlikely, since all of history amply documents the human response to the felt need for superheroes. (Vide not only Egyptian and Greek mythology but also the Edda and The Avengers, due to be released in a couple of weeks.) Upon the whole, it seems safe to say that the probability of the invention of such a character is at least .1. At a conservative estimate, the likelihood ratio
P(Historian-myther-hero|Richard Carrier is not a real person)/P(Historian-myther-hero|Richard Carrier is a real person)
is therefore .1/(30/3,000), or 10 to 1.
But Richard Carrier is also supposed to be a “world renowned philosopher and historian” (according to the blurb on Why I am not a Christian). Problems now begin to crowd more thickly around the definition. How many History Ph. D.s are philosophers at all? Surely not very many. How many are world renowned philosophers, even though they have just obtained the Ph. D.? The percentages are vanishing; they probability cannot sensibly be estimated at greater than 0.0001. But this would be a very useful accomplishment to add to the credentials of a historian-myther-hero, if he were an invented character. Let us suppose the probability to be merely 0.1 (though it should probably be higher), and we get the likelihood ratio:
P(World-renowned philosopher|Richard Carrier is not a real person & Historian-myther-hero)/P(World-renowned philosopher|Richard Carrier is a real person & Historian-myther-hero)
= 0.1/0.0001, or 1000 to 1.
We can go further. This world-renowned philosopher-historian-myther-hero is also a mathematician. Given historians’ well-known disdain for mathematical methods, the probability of this if Carrier is a real person is low, though perhaps not so drastically low as it would be if our hero were not also a philosopher, since perhaps as many as ten percent of all philosophers can and do use mathematical methods from time to time. Call the conditional probability of this detail, given the reality of Carrier and all of the other factors considered thus far, 0.05. But the mythic Carrier would only be enhanced by adding mathematical abilities to his other powers; it is at least even money that, if he is entirely mythical, this additional qualification would be tacked onto his resume. However, so as not to overestimate the probability, let us reduce the estimate to:
P(Mathematician||Richard Carrier is not a real person & Historian-myther-hero & World-renowned philosopher)/P(Mathematician|Richard Carrier is a real person & Historian-myther-hero & World-renowned philosopher)
= 0.2/0.05, or 4 to 1.
Putting these factors together, we have to weigh odds of 100 to 1 for Carrier’s reality against the combination of other factors, which tip the scales at 40,000 to 1 against. These considerations alone leave us with odds of 400 to 1 against, or a probability just a bit in excess of .9975 that Richard Carrier is not a real person.
We might go on in this vein for quite some time, noting further incongruities in the Carrier myth. How many trained historians would misread Plutarch’s “On Isis and Osiris” 19.358b as declaring Osiris’s physical resurrection from the dead here on earth? How many mathematicians would bungle basic probability calculations? How many philosophers, world-renowned or otherwise, would endorse the position that the laws of logic “obviously” derive from the laws of physics? Yet such blunders are what we might well expect to crop up as the community feigning Carrier’s existence attempted to demonstrate his expertise in one field after another.
So the calculation given above seriously underestimates the probabilities in the case. Almost certainly, by strict Bayesian reasoning, Richard Carrier does not exist.
And yet, I venture to predict that the vast majority of Carrier-believers will pay no attention whatsoever to Bayesian reasoning when it is applied rigorously to conclusions that they hold sacred.
Reflecting on this compelling expose, a number of commenters realised that the evidence had been staring them in the face the whole time. As Calum noted, perhaps Tim was being much too “generous” in his assessment of prior probability here:
There’s no way I use “Richard Carrier did it” as an explanation 1 time in every 100. I hardly ever use “Richard Carrier did it” as an explanation – in fact, I’m not convinced I’ve ever used it as an explanation. I therefore assign the prior probability of Richard Carrier’s existence the value of 0, because of this flawless and universally accepted rule for generating priors.
Reflecting on his experience – or lack thereof – with people who have met Carrier in person, David realised:
I have talked to people who claim to have met Carrier. But they are part of the atheist community, and their “faith testimonies” should therefore be discounted as cognitive dissonance arising from their expectation of meeting Carrier, and then being disappointed.
Another member of the rapidly growing Carrier-mythicist community, Sam quotes someone else in that community as an authoritative source, noting:
I think David [last name removed] has a good point. It explains why so many people talk about Richard Carrier as if he existed. Talking about him, and convincing other people of his existence, strengthens their faith. That’s how cognitive dissonance works. Such is their desire to convince others that they even write pseudonymous books in his name.
Dr McGrew agrees, and draws our attention to factors that Carrier-literalists seem never to have considered:
We may also be underestimating the percentage of them who are schizotypal and thus naturally prone to hallucination. Through the psychological phenomena of suggestion, anchoring, and memory contamination, any one of these conditions in one person could have precipitated experiences under the same or other conditions in anyone else similarly predisposed.
Of course, if a remarkable figure like “Richard Carrier,” expert in multiple fields and a world renown philosopher existed, we can be certain that world historians at the time when Carrier achieved world renown might have at least heard of him. And yet, as David notes, this is not the case:
I just looked through the indexes of five major historical works that cover modern times: Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Nicholas Riasanvosky’s A History of Russia, David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Note that Carrier, if so important and universal a polymath existed, would surely have been noticed by an competent historian, whatever else they happened to be writing about! And surely Carrier is part of “nearly everything,” so Bryson in particular could be counted on to write extensively about his early childhood, school classmates, pets, and his wise aphorisms and parables, and his wondrous works.
Yet remarkably, not a single one of these contemporary biographers so much as mention Richard Carrier! (Though two mention a “Jimmy Carter,” which apologists might seize on as a possible corruption of some sort, but I think we can rule that out.) I’m not one to casually abuse the Argument from Silence, but if ever it were applicable, surely it is in this case.
But maybe none of this really counts as criticism after all. Maybe all of this really points to the true heart of Carrianity. Maybe it’s not about some guy who suddenly shot to super-stardom and world renown because of his obvious competence, devastating Christians with is powerful arguments that nobody has ever encountered before. Maybe Neil is right:
Guys, I think you’re missing the point. What really matters is the ‘Carrier of faith’ regardless of what we think about the ‘Carrier of history’.
P.S. Tim McGrew made me promise to tell the reader that his short article was written in a whimsical spirit for fun. But given the historian’s “principle of embarrassment,” this is just what you’d expect me to tell you as a supporter of the Carrier-myth thesis if it was really a serious one after all!
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