Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Thoughts on “The Christian Delusion” (The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited)

March 24, 2023

So the last essay in the first chapter is by John W. Loftus, the editor of the work, and where he revisits what he is most famous for, “The Outsider Test For Faith”.  Now, I’ve criticized “The Outsider Test for Faith” myself, and so on reading this chapter didn’t find his defenses all that strong myself.  But why I want to take on the chapter in more detail is because there are some interesting philosophical implications to what he says here … implications that I don’t think he sees.

So, a quick reminder of what the Outsider Test for Faith really is.  Loftus noted that religious people reject the miraculous claims of other religions, and reject the claims of other religions to having truly divine entities, and yet are completely convinced that their miracles are true and their entities are divine.  In addition — and this is the argument that he most relies on — which set of miracles and which set of divine entities they believe in depends greatly on the cultural context they were raised in.  If someone was raised in a Christian culture, they will be completely convinced that Christianity is true and that all other religions are false, but if someone was raised in an Islamic culture, then they would be equally convinced that Islam is true and Christianity is false.  What Loftus’ test asks religious people to do, then, is step outside their cultural context and examine their own religion using the same standards that they use to evaluate and reject the others, and if they do so rationally and honestly he is convinced that they would have to reject their own religion as well and become atheists, with an additional implication that this method is, in fact, why most atheists are atheists, and that if religious people follow his method they will come to reject their religion for the same reasons that atheists reject all religions.

One of my main objections to the OTF is that it fails because religious people don’t reject the religions of other people for the reasons that Loftus thinks and not for the reasons that atheists reject them.  This entire chapter only makes that more clear, because both Loftus and the author of the previous essay, Jason Long, are pretty aggressive in calling religious beliefs ridiculous and nonsensical, but it seems to me that the main reason they — and many other atheists — believe that is because of their attachment to naturalism.  The problem is that no religious person rejects other religions because they are making supernatural claims, as they all accept that at least some supernatural claims are true (the ones their own religion makes).  So Christians do not reject Judaism because it posits miracles, but instead because Judaism does not accept Christ as the Messiah.  And they do not reject Islam because it includes divine entities, but because it, again, doesn’t accept Christ and Christ’s message properly.  And the converse is also true.  Judaism rejects Christianity because it is obvious to them that Christ is not the Messiah (because he didn’t bring peace to the Earth) and Islam rejects Christianity because they do not properly accept Muhammad.  So for the most part, they accept that those religions at least and in general all other religions could be true and are not inherently ridiculous. They just happen to think them wrong because they clash with beliefs they already hold.  So it’s never going to be the case that if they step outside of their own cultural context that they will think of their own religion the same way that atheists do.  They might come to a rejection of their own religion on the basis that from that perspective theirs doesn’t seem more reasonable than the other religions, but that wouldn’t be what Loftus would be advocating for with the OTF … and many of them may well follow the epistemological principle of “Maintain your own beliefs unless you have reason to reject them”, and that kind of minor “Mine doesn’t seem inherently better than other religions” is not a strong enough reason to do that.  At that point, the debate between someone like myself and someone like Loftus is epistemological, and not something that the OTF could settle.

Loftus tries to deal with some objections, and I think these can be sorted into three main categories:  denying that the beliefs of Christians and others are as tightly tied to their culture as Loftus asserts, arguing that even if those beliefs are formed primarily from that culture that doesn’t make them false, and arguing that atheists like Loftus have equally culturally formed and yet equally deeply held beliefs that they are unwilling to give up, and don’t consider themselves irrational for holding.

Let’s look at the first category.  What the objections have pointed out is that Christianity has been successful in areas that are not traditionally and cultural Christian, and that Christians and members of other religions change from the religion they grew up with all the time.  Loftus’ attempts to defend his view against these charges are … underwhelming, to say the least.  Basically, his refutations here end up arguing that those people are not converting rationally and so are not using the OTF at all, and so it’s not a valid objection to his claim.  But this misses the point of the objections.  The point of these objections is that contrary to Loftus’ assertion and assumptions, people come to believe in religions that weren’t part of their cultural background all the time.  Which means that there are perfectly natural mechanisms that would cause a Christian to convert to another religion that don’t involve the OTF.  Thus, if religious people maintain the religion of their culture, they do so because they find that the new religion doesn’t fit their view of the world as well as their original religion, because if it did, as we’ve seen, they would have converted.  What this suggests, then, is that there’s no real need for the OTF for people to convert from the religion of their culture, and so Loftus would have to argue that while whatever method they are using could work, it’s not a proper way to do it and so they would have to use his OTF.  But then Loftus loses the big argument for why the OTF is needed, which is that you have to step outside your cultural context and the beliefs you were raised with to come to the conclusion that your religion is false.  Clearly, these examples prove that isn’t true.  Thus, is argument would have to be that we all ought to do that as a normative claim, and not one that follows from the descriptive idea that we would never be able to assess our own religion in a way that would get us to reject it without doing so.  We definitely could, so why should we use his method other than that he thinks doing so will bring us closer to the conclusion that he wants us to draw?

Let me look next at the idea that they hold beliefs that are equally cultural and equally strongly held without having any better justification for them (whether or not there actually is a stronger justification for them available).  The biggest section of this is an examination of the objections of Victor Reppert, who uses the examples “rape is wrong” and “representative democracy is a better form of government than monarchy”.  Loftus first admits that some of the beliefs we hold that way may not be necessary, but then presents a defense of those specific beliefs from Richard Carrier.  While I won’t go into them in detail, they are basically his standard ones:  someone who considers what a woman who is raped will feel will conclude that rape is wrong, and someone under a monarchy who properly understands democracy would clearly prefer the latter.  The interesting point here is that what Carrier is engaging in here to defend these propositions is in fact clearly apologetics.  He is rationalizing a justification for these beliefs, and those justifications are … dubious, to say the least.  For the first place, that something makes people feel good or bad doesn’t mean that the belief is true.  If a religious person said that the feeling that people get from being religious makes them happy enough and that losing that belief makes them depressed enough that we should hold the religion to be true, both Carrier and Loftus wouldn’t accept that as an argument, so we have no reason to accept it in the rape case either.  And that someone in the past might think that democracy is better doesn’t mean that it is, and they’d reject that sort of argument for religion.  So Loftus’ supposed defenses are the precise sort of rationalization that he wants religious people to give up using his OTF.  So that doesn’t really work to support his point.

And he needs to demonstrate that we can and do hold these beliefs for reasons beyond that we take them from our culture, because any belief that he has to accept he holds because he got it from the cultural context and yet that he doesn’t want to give up opens the door for Christians to say that they treat their Christianity the same way, and so he could not claim that they are necessarily irrational for maintaining that belief simply because it’s one that he rejects and thinks ridiculous.  Especially since the main belief that drives them considering Christianity ridiculous, as I’ve already noted, is their belief in naturalism, and I have raised problems with naturalism (which is why I reject it).  If my and other objections have merit, then Loftus cannot claim that his belief in naturalism is justified, but he would be unlikely to simply reject it.  Ultimately, he considers religious ridiculous because of a belief that he has and religious people clearly don’t.  This changes this all to a debate over fundamental beliefs, which is one that the OTF cannot settle.

Which leads to the final category:  that just because a religious belief is culturally formed doesn’t mean that it’s false.  In order to pull off this argument, Loftus relies on an implicit and at times explicit statement that culturally formed beliefs are not reliable.  He contrasts this with science and even epistemological skepticism which are methods he considers to be reliable.  The problem is cultural beliefs are reliable.  Cultural beliefs become cultural beliefs by standing the test of time.  Yes, some of them could turn out to be false, but that is true of science as well.  And if Loftus claims that science tests and corrects its beliefs, we can see that cultural beliefs are corrected by its own methods as well.  If a cultural belief stops working, the culture will eventually abandon it as we see in the Western world with the shift from monarchy to democracy.  It may take longer for cultural beliefs, but ultimately if a cultural belief stops working it will be abandoned and replaced.  Thus, lots of cultural beliefs are indeed true, some of them are wrong, but for the most part enough of them are true to consider it reliable.  What this would mean is that we are always rational to maintain a cultural belief unless we have good reason to think it false, and as I’ve noted before I don’t think they are.  Loftus could try to argue that science is more reliable, and so we should trust science over cultural beliefs, and science says that Christianity is false.  But even if we accept that epistemology says that we should accept science over cultural beliefs, this would change the debate from us needing to take the OTF to an argument over whether science really conflicts that strongly with religion.  And since I myself have raised philosophical objections to naturalism, it cannot be because of science’s methodological naturalism or else Loftus and myself would be arguing over whether that is valid.

What this means is that as we go through this essay we discover that the OTF is unnecessary.  People change religions and even become atheists without it, and there is little reason to think that their approaches are completely invalid as opposed to being them trying to build the most consistent worldview they can.  At any rate, we don’t need to step outside the culture to change or drop religion.  We all hold cultural beliefs and fundamental beliefs without necessarily having proper justifications for them all the time, and in fact some of those are the very beliefs that cause atheists to consider religion ridiculous, thus reducing the debate to a debate over which sets of those beliefs we should accept.  And finally, a lot of those discussions will be over what epistemology is the right one to use, and we need to settle those questions before we can assess whether the OTF is necessary or even useful.  At the end of the day, the OTF is a method that Loftus promotes because he thinks it will be more likely to turn religious people into atheists, but that in and of itself should make us suspicious of using it unless it really is the right approach … and given the reliability of cultural beliefs I don’t think it is.  Ultimately, then, it is not the case that Christians who refuse to take the OTF are really engaging in a double standard because that’s not why they reject other religions in the first place, and there are a number of good philosophical reasons to be suspicious of it.

Thoughts on “The Christian Delusion” (Part 1 – Why Faith Fails)

March 17, 2023

After reading “Unbelievable?”, I moved on to a couple of compilations from John W. Loftus that Richard Carrier had written things for and was promoting at times.  I don’t intend to comment in detail on each chapter, which is written by a different person and covers a different topic.  Instead, what I plan to do is at the end of each section comment in general on things that I thought while reading the section, and only breaking down a specific chapter if I feel it worth my while.  So the first section is entitled “Why Faith Fails”, and contains four chapters, but here I’ll comment on my overall impression of the section and then take a deeper look at the last chapter in the section, which is Loftus revisiting his “Outsider Test For Faith”.  I’ve read the original book and talked about the test, so it’s worth my looking at his defenses and he says things that are worth discussing philosophically.

Anyway, this section, to me, boils down to atheists trying to demonstrate how Christians could be wrong and seemingly the mechanisms that cause them to refuse to admit that they could be wrong even though it’s not only possible that they are wrong, but that it is in fact the case that they are wrong.  Their hope is that once Christians realize the flaws in their reasoning and the underlying mechanisms that get them to deny it, they will accept that the evidence for the existence of God is insufficient and become atheists.  In my mind, though, this can’t work, because most Christians already accept that they could be wrong and so that by the standards of atheists there is insufficient evidence for the existence of God to produce knowledge in the way they claim they want to know things, and so will not react the way atheists want them to when faced with those sorts of arguments … which tends to enrage those very atheists.

While obviously there are many different stances that Christians can and do take on this matter, the two largest categories — and the ones that cause atheists the most grief — are those Christians who believe entirely on faith and those Christians who are more like me and believe primarily through cultural influence.  For the first category, they accept that it’s just plain obvious that we don’t have the sort of evidence the atheist wants.  That’s what faith is for.  And so when the atheist outlines all of those many arguments to show that they could be wrong, they shrug and note that it is indeed the case that by those standards they could be wrong, but again that’s what faith gives them:  the ability to know and believe even when the evidence isn’t there.  So those sorts of arguments are going to fall on deaf ears, as all they do is establish something that they already know.  For the second category, they would tend to deny that they have or need faith, but then would also tend to argue that they aren’t making a knowledge claim and so have a mere belief.  Since this is a mere belief, they already accept that it could be wrong, but would point out that the onus is on the atheist to make an argument that they feel the need to take seriously enough to drop that belief, and the atheists have yet to do that.  And so, again, the arguments fall on deaf ears because, again, all they are doing is establishing something they already accept, and so the atheists would need a better argument.

Now, the atheists could point out that some people do indeed become atheists from their various arguments, and so my analysis can’t be correct.  But in line with my epistemological commitment to the “Web of Belief”, it makes perfect sense.  What will push the Christians in either of those categories to atheism is not an alternate explanation for God or an argument showing that they could be wrong about their belief in God, but instead an argument that clashes with their Web of Belief strongly enough that there is less damage to that Web if they abandon their belief in God as opposed to denying their argument.  These are the sorts of arguments that cause true “Crises of Faith” and are the things that Christians have been dealing with for centuries.  And what is important about these is that the arguments or thoughts that spawn these tend to be very personal to the person, and aren’t big overarching arguments.  Thus, it’s no surprise that the “Problem of Evil” is probably the most prominent argument in deconversion stories, and it makes sense that many of the New Atheists constantly talk about how religion and their scientific beliefs are incompatible.  Many Christians struggle with the idea that bad things can happen to them, their loved ones, or others and that God, who could prevent it, allows it to happen.  And very scientific minds who see religion encroaching on their science would be unwilling to give up science to maintain religion.  Both of these are very personal to the individual and yet, for the individuals who hold them, are held at a deep enough level and/or an emotional enough level to overwhelm their belief in God and force them to abandon it.

For me, neither of these arguments work, but for philosophical reasons, not faith-based ones.  My Stoic sympathies ultimately cause me to deny that suffering is in and of itself bad and so means that the presence of it in the world is not strong enough to force me to abandon the belief in God (especially since there are ways to resolve the conflict), and my rejection of scientism and naturalism and sympathy for philosophical but non-scientific truths and for some “supernatural” claims means that I reject that science can explain everything and is always right.  I concede that there might be contradictions there, but for me they cannot be strong enough to force me to abandon the belief in God.

Another interesting point is that while they spend a lot of time talking about the various ways that false beliefs can be rationalized and so maintained through our faulty faculties — David Eller talks about cultural defenses, Valerie Tarico talks about cognitive defenses, and Jason Long talks about indoctrination and other cognitive defense mechanisms — they don’t seem to realize that what they are doing is attacking the very rational faculties that they themselves promote and rely on.  Yes, Christians may be using these flawed mechanisms to maintain their Christian beliefs, but these are human mechanisms and not Christian ones.  As we shall see when I look at Loftus, a lot of the beliefs that they themselves hold to be self-evident may themselves be equally flawed and equally unsupported by the evidence, and so they themselves may be doing the precise same things that they castigate Christians for.  And since one of those beliefs is naturalism itself, which is the foundation of the atheism of so many of them, it may well be the case that Christians could indeed fire back that the only reason they reject the belief in God based on these faulty mechanisms.  What they don’t seem to realize is that you cannot posit that these mechanisms are failing for a belief only because it’s a belief that you don’t favour.  You need stronger evidence to show that it is indeed really the case here, because otherwise all you do is call the mechanisms themselves into question, and the history of philosophy provides ample examples of what happens when you do that.  So just as you can’t call something a hallucination just because you don’t want to believe that you’ve seen that, you can’t assume that our reasoning is flawed or biased just because someone believes something you don’t want to believe.  Atheists will, of course, insist that they have good reasons for thinking that’s happening here, and they do have some arguments that can suggest that, but those arguments are not as strong as atheists think and so don’t get them out of this problem as easily as they seem to think.

And one final point, which is a way in which Christianity might be considered unique.  David Eller notes in his chapter how Christianity adapts to and inserts itself into the cultures that contain the people that they are trying to convert, and Valerie Tarico in her chapter notes that Christianity is a religion that is based around specific beliefs as opposed to a shared culture.  This can be contrasted with the other major religions like Judaism and Islam which seem to have a much stronger connection to a specific culture.  Christianity from the start focused more on the specific belief in Jesus’ resurrection than on any specific cultural aspects or rituals, probably because of the influence of Paul.  This is, of course, one reason why it has become such a dominant religion, and spread in large numbers around the world.  But then one might comment that the main religion of a God who wanted one specific redemptive act to be believed by everyone would have that trait.  So perhaps Christians can answer Loftus by pointing to that trait as a reason why the other religions aren’t as credible as Christianity.

But I’ll say more about Loftus next time, in the second post I’m going to make about the book and about the chapters in this section.

Thoughts on “Unbelievable?”

March 10, 2023

So, I finished reading “Unbelievable?” by Justin Brierley, where he talks about why despite having hosted a radio show for many years where he brought atheists and theists together and so after having heard the best arguments that atheism has to offer, he remains a Christian.  I have a few thoughts to share on it.  First I’m going to talk about my overall impression of the book, and then talk about a few points including a brief discussion of Richard Carrier’s take on it, which is what first brought the book to my attention and got me to read it.

So, first, as I commented in my post on why I’m not convinced by atheist arguments, I didn’t expect that his arguments would convince me, and that is indeed what happened.  He has some interesting takes on some arguments, but for the most part when I think about them it turns out that the arguments don’t necessarily work.  There wasn’t any real argument there that I felt conclusively proved the existence of God, and even the combination of all of them didn’t seem to work out.  Basically, if you don’t already believe in God or are skeptical of God’s existence, Brierley doesn’t really have an argument that will convince you.  He tends to focus on the idea most of the time that these things provide a world that makes more sense if there is a God than if there isn’t, it would easily be — rightly — objected that that is for him, and that others might not see it the same way, just as for Christians the atheist claim that things make sense without God doesn’t really work.

But this doesn’t really matter for Brierly, because he himself is something that is interesting to me:  someone who does, in fact, have faith.  As he notes on page 194, people don’t get argued into Christianity.  If Christianity doesn’t resonate at a deeper level than as a simple academic argument, a person will never become Christian or at least will never stay one.  This is interesting to me as someone who doesn’t really have that kind of faith, although I admit it’s not really simple or dry academic arguments that are responsible for my belief in God either.  What this means is that for him apologetics exists primarily to find ways around the roadblocks to faith, which are the skeptical doubts that the atheists rely so much on.  It’s an interesting perspective that isn’t what I am accustomed to.

One minor point to address is his discussion of the cosmological argument.  As with most of these arguments, it focuses on finding a First Cause, but as I was reading it I realized that finding such a thing isn’t sufficient.  After all, philosophically I’m convinced that there must indeed be a First Cause, and yet am not convinced that the cosmological argument establishes the existence of God, and think that the ontological argument has a better shot at it.  Why is this?  Because some of the atheistic arguments about other things that could be that First Cause could work, which leads to this revelation:  just because you’ve established a First Cause does not mean that you’ve established that that First Cause cannot be a purely “natural” one.  Yes, there are a number of non-God First Causes that would work perfectly well to create the universe we see.  I think the Thomists have a leg up in this debate because their arguments establish something important about the Ground of All Being:  that it has to be intelligent.  The cosmological argument can only work if as part of it or through another argument we can establish that that First Cause has to be intelligent.  If a First Cause is intelligent, then it pretty much is God, even if Christianity may not be true.  Atheism, at least, would be defeated there.  But if the First Cause need not be intelligent, then it all could be a mindless process proceeding from some mindless thing that is itself necessary.  So more effort, it seems to me, needs to be done on showing that we have an intelligent or designed basis to the universe than simply focusing on causation and contingency.

I’ve already talked a bit about the New Testament and Brierley’s attempts to defend it here.  I don’t think Brierley’s attempts to defend it historically work, but as noted don’t think that that’s what’s important to defend the idea that a real Jesus existed.  There’s plenty of reason to consider the New Testament akin to the legends that grow around most legendary figures, and so that a lot of things in it might not be true.  So when Brierley claims on page 112 that we have more evidence for Jesus than for Caesar crossing the Rubicon, if we consider the Gospels and Paul and some others all legitimate and independent sources, that might be technically true as there might be more written accounts of it, but we have reason to doubt them all being independent and legitimate, and we know historically that Caesar crossed the Rubicon not so much because many different and independent people wrote it down, but mostly because the historical consequences of that action are clear and could only reasonably follow from him actually doing that.  By contrast, mythicists, at least, will argue that while there are very significant historical consequences that follow from Jesus, those consequences could follow even if we just believed there was a real Jesus even if there wasn’t one.  When I read this claim, my immediate thought was that this was something that Carrier would make hay over given what Carrier has said in other places.

Speaking of Carrier, one of my original purposes for reading the book was to see if Carrier, in his multi-post take on it, was representing it correctly.  Attempting to re-read them before writing this post, however, it turned out that Carrier’s posts were both quite long and tended to — as is normal for Carrier — spend a lot of time focusing on Carrier’s views and little time directly quoting or referencing Brierley.  I really don’t have the time to weed through all of that to find the specific claims and see if Carrier is being fair.  However, while skimming the first post, I found a couple of places that would indicate that Carrier might not be being totally fair to Brierley’s argument.

The first is over the number of arguments for Christianity and atheism.  Carrier says this:

One prominent instance exemplifying Brierley’s illogical reasoning: he actually tries to argue (p. 149) that theism has “a multiplicity of arguments” and atheism really has only one (the Argument from Evil), which is both false (he himself goes on to list many other arguments for atheism; there are many, many more) and illogical. Because it does not matter how many invalid arguments you have for a conclusion; that does not make the conclusion even one iota more likely to be true. If anything, it makes it less likely to be true. Because no one has to invent a dozen bad arguments for something that’s true. Only false claims need such deployments—as I already noted when I dealt with this illogical argument from Alvin Plantinga.

Thus when Brierley says we “may dispute their validity, but the preponderance of arguments tips the scales towards belief in God,” he is exposing how incompetent he is at logic, and that it is this very incompetence that produces and sustains his Christian faith. Bad arguments do not add up to a good argument. They never tip the scales.

The first misrepresentation here is that Brierley is saying that there really is only one argument, which he kinda says but even in that sentence itself he says this:

Atheism, however, while frequently critiquing the role of religion and its arguments for God, has an overall much shorter list of arguments of its own in favour of a naturalistic worldview, the prime one being the argument from suffering.

If Carrier had focused on arguing that there are more arguments in favour of a naturalistic worldview — such as the argument that we don’t need supernatural explanations for everything and natural explanations have always won out in the past over supernatural ones — he’d have a point worth considering.  But instead he focuses on the number of arguments and says that it makes it less probable … which, argumentatively, is false.  A proposition supported by multiple independent arguments is indeed more likely to be true, for a few reasons.  First, all it would need is for one of those arguments to work and it would be proven, which gives it a leg up in any such discussions.  Second, it’s also less vulnerable, as you can’t simply refute one of those arguments and kill it, but have to refute all of them.  But finally, and most importantly, if multiple lines of evidence and argumentation are converging on a single answer, that answer is indeed more likely to be correct since it would mean that from whatever angle we examine the empirical or philosophical evidence we are being unerringly led to that conclusion.  This is, in fact, a key component in science itself, as it relies on multiple lines of evidence converging on an answer so that the extra lines of evidence support or confirm the first one.  While Carrier asserts that you wouldn’t need more than one argument to prove something true, science and basic argumentation disagree with him:  if you have more reasons for thinking something true that really should increase your confidence that it’s true.

This is in line with what Brierley actually argued, as he says this:

Pointing out the existence of pain does not necessarily negate the other aspects of our existence and experience that seem to affirm the reality of God.

Here, Brierley seems to be saying that we have one puzzling aspect in our lives that might point against the reality of God but when stacked up against all the other aspects that point to the reality of God that should tip the scales towards God.  If he’s right, that is indeed a reasonable argument, and one in line with Carrier’s own probabilistic epistemology.  Carrier does not reject the argument because it’s invalid, but because he disagrees with Brierley that those other aspects of our lives point to God.  By arguing as he does, Carrier somewhat misrepresents Brierley and misses Brierley’s actual argument.

The other point is about prayer.  Carrier says this:

There is also a lot of strange self-contradiction in his book, and I’ll point that out when it comes up. But as an example with which I’ll close today’s summary, Brierley tries to explain that the reason he believes “so-called ‘studies’ into the effects of prayer are fundamentally flawed” (p. 73) is not, as is more likely, that they’ve collectively proved prayer has no material effect on the world (beyond psychologically; to which non-prayer correlates, like acupuncture and crystal magic, would work just as well), but rather because he believes science can never study God. Yet barely a hundred pages later he is promoting his own (quite unsystematic) prayer study as evidence for God (pp. 190-94), as if he forgot what he believed in the first half of the book and suddenly started believing exactly the opposite in the latter half of the book. I can’t explain this. But I am not at all surprised that, right on cue, his use of his own “study” betrays all the same ignorance of fact and failures of logic that riddle the rest of his book.

The problem here is that that “experiment” was not and was never intended to be a scientific experiment.  What Brierley was trying to do — or, at least, how he was using it in that chapter — was as a reflection of his belief that you can’t merely argue one’s way into faith, but that you have to live that faith before you can really accept that.  The experiment was getting atheists and agnostics to live the Christian worldview by praying to see if it changed their view.  This is, of course, a completely different sort of thing than the prayer studies referenced earlier, which look to see if there is an effect on the world overall and tries to justify it on the basis of a statistical analysis.  He is also quite clear that, well, it didn’t have much of an effect, and that even in the cases where it seemed like it might have had an effect the explanation from the participants was that it was probably due to natural explanations and causes.  So he’s hardly promoting that study as evidence for God.  In any way.  Carrier always grumbles about people not reading what he says, but here he totally misrepresents the point of the study and, more importantly, the reason Brierley mentions it.

At any rate, I enjoyed reading the book — probably more than I expected, to be honest — but aside from, well, things like that stud and a few other things there wasn’t much new in it.  Still, it was a good summary with some interesting takes on some of these issues, and it’s a short and easy read, so I do recommend reading it if you’re interested in such things.  As for me, I’m moving on to specific atheist arguments with “The Christian Delusion:  Why Faith Fails”.

Historicism, Mythicism, Paul and the New Testament

March 3, 2023

Despite the fact that philosophy of religion is something like seventh on my list of philosophical interests — after luge! — and despite the fact that I’m not particularly interested in the historicism/mythicism debate, after having heard a lot about it through reading Richard Carrier’s posts and from people like Jonathan MS Pearce I’ve decided that I really should sit down and read through the stuff and comment on it, especially since while reading Justin Brierley’s book it was covered there as well and so this isn’t some simple fringe idea that is Carrier’s latest obsession but something that might come up, but also something that I haven’t really studied much.  So I have Carrier’s books on the topic on my reading list and obviously have read some of his posts and thought about it a bit.

Which leads to his latest post on the topic, in line with what I read in Brierley.  Carrier’s post here is taking on Tim O’Neill, and a debate over whether Paul said “born of a woman” or “made of a woman” in Galatians 4:4.  The big argument from the mythicist side is that the word Paul uses is odd, since in all other places when he talks about being born he uses the more standard and less ambiguous Greek word for born, but here and in other places he uses a Greek word that could mean “made” or “manufactured”, and that he also uses that same word for other cases where the body was not born but was instead made, like for Adam or for our resurrected bodies.  What spurred Carrier’s — and another mythicist’s in Fitzgerald — response is that O’Neill tried to refute it and did so in a way that they consider incredibly wrong and even dishonest.  O’Neill, as I understand it, first said that that word couldn’t mean made, and Carrier and Fitzgerald have pointed out that it definitely can.  Also or perhaps later, O’Neill said that they need the word to only mean made and it can also mean born, and they pointed out that they already know that it can mean born, but point out the oddities above.  Their main complaint about his dishonesty is that it seems like in his response to their responses he’s claiming that the argument he was really making was an argument that he didn’t actually make in the original comment, which from the quotes seems fair.

But what struck me about this is that this doesn’t seem like a very important mythicist point, important enough for the two of them to make it a big part of their original arguments and to come out in force when O’Neill criticizes it.  After all, the best they have here is that Paul doesn’t say that Jesus was explicitly born, but to do that they have to concede that Paul said “made from a woman” instead of “born from a woman”.  But since Paul uses the same Greek word for Adam, and we know that Adam had a real, mortal body, then it seems like historicists would get what they need from that.  After all, historicists don’t need the phrase here to indicate a specific mortal mother, but only use that as an argument to show that Jesus was a real person.  Even if Jesus was made in the same way as Adam was, that would still indicate a real, mortal body and so a real person to be referenced.  So what they’d really need to do is attempt to refute that, which Carrier does I believe by making it an analogical claim … but then he also has a hypothesis here that in order to preserve descent from David Jesus was made through stored sperm from David himself, which is a bit odd but, more importantly, would also indicate a real, physical, mortal body which again is what it seems to me is all historicists need, so this doesn’t seem like a great hill to die on.

This defense seems especially odd when we look at what they conclude based on probabilities:

Indeed, so far from “assuming” it, in On the Historicity of Jesus I even score it to the contrary—counting this passage as evidence for historicity; albeit weak evidence, owing to its demonstrable oddity and ambiguity, which even O’Neill has now couchedly started admitting. Fitzgerald does not take that approach; he uses my a judicantiori estimates instead of the a fortiori (which is still 50/50, ultimately the position that “we don’t know for sure either way, so we can’t use this as evidence” for or against the historicity of Jesus).

So the best case for the mythicist here, by Carrier’s own assessment, is that we can’t use this as evidence either way.  So after all of that work, Carrier and Fitzgerald can’t even get to the point where they can cite this oddity as evidence in favour of mythicism.  Why, then, do they care so much about this to give it so much attention?  Well, because if taken at face value and in light of how the currently existent Christian church has interpreted it, it would seem to absolutely refute their position.  So they need to find some way to interpret it so that it doesn’t lead to that conclusion.  Thus, the onus is on them to provide more than it being odd, but instead to show that the at least more likely interpretation is in line with their mythicism.  And while I haven’t read all of the arguments yet — Carrier supposedly outlined it in detail in the books that I haven’t read yet — I don’t see the points they made here doing that, by their own admission.  If the best they can do is claim this is ambiguous they’d need a lot of other evidence to make mythicism even remotely credible.  So I don’t think that historicists really need to spend much time addressing these arguments at all.  It seems like all they’d need to do is point out that by Carrier’s own assessment they have not particularly probable alternative interpretations of it, which don’t really get them to the point of being able to claim that, at least based on this word choice, that Paul thought that Jesus didn’t have a real body (in fact, elsewhere Carrier seems to think that both he and Fitzgerald definitely think that he did, which means that they had better have a really good set of arguments to show that, nevertheless, they can still arrive at an interesting and meaningful mythicism as opposed to historicism).  So we end up with an issue when Carrier claims this:

What this all illustrates is how gullible YouTubers are in believing anything O’Neill says, and how historicity can only be defended with lies—a fact those YouTubers should start to question: if mythicism can be “destroyed” only by lying, isn’t it historicity that is actually being destroyed?

While Carrier might be right to say that O’Neill is lying here, this argument doesn’t work for two reasons.  First, it’s an ad hominem.  Even against O’Neill, the fact that O’Neill lied about some things doesn’t mean that none of his counter-arguments work and so that it can only be opposed with lies, and Carrier would have to show that all counters to his arguments were lies and so none of them were valid.  So he’s attacking historicism by claiming that the people who defend it can only defend it by lying and so are all liars, which both doesn’t support his attack since even liars can make good arguments at times that are not just lies and so need to be addressed and is not supported by the fact that one or even more than one defender of historicism has lied about something.  Carrier loves these sort of rhetorical flourishes but the more he uses them the more inclined we are to carefully look at his arguments to make sure that he’s not committing other logical fallacies in making them.

But the second reason is more important, which is that in this case historicists don’t actually need to defend this at all.  There’s nothing to defend, because ultimately by Carrier’s own admission this is not an actual sally against historicism.  Historicists could accept everything Carrier says and Carrier’s own assessment of the probability here and note that even by Carrier’s own assessment this still supports historicity, albeit weakly.  So it’s hard to say that historicism can only be defended by lies starting from one argument that historicists don’t seem to really need to “defend” at all.

You could ask, of course, the same question that I asked of mythicists above:  if this is so minor, why do historicists spend so much time talking about it and defending their interpretation of it?  Well, it seems to me that the reason is two-fold.  First, mythicists spend so much time talking about it and finding way to interpret it that it seems like it’s an important argument to address.  Second, there’s always the temptation to hit a home run and refute mythicism outright, and if they could demonstrate that this passage almost certainly refers to a real mother then that would pretty much kill mythicism.  So there are reasons for them to put in the effort to refute it, even as, again, I don’t consider it all that important, especially given Carrier’s own assessment of it.

Now, when I was reading Brierly, I noticed that he had a section talking about historicism and defending the New Testament, and did so while referencing Carrier.  There were some arguments that he made that Carrier would — and probably did, given that I found out about the book from reading Carrier’s criticisms of it — take great exception to, but something struck me while reading.  Previously, I had commented that the only reason to rely on interpreting Paul in this debate is because there aren’t any other good sources for what the earliest Christians actually believed.  If we knew what the earliest Christians actually believed, we wouldn’t need to rely on Paul to figure that out, and more importantly we would interpret Paul in light of what they believed, because we know that while he differed from them on some points he also wanted to be broadly consistent with them, and so if they believed in a Jesus who lived and had a real body and a real ministry then Paul would have believed that as well, and so we would interpret any of these ambiguous passages as supporting that.  But as noted in Brierley’s defense, Christians believe we have that:  the New Testament.  And the New Testament is adamant that there was a real, historical Jesus who had a real ministry.  So if we can interpret Paul in the context of the New Testament, then mythicism is refuted.

So, of course, mythicists like Carrier have to discredit the New Testament, and Carrier has done that on a number of occasions.  Brierley tries to defend it on the basis of it being an accurate historical document, which plays right into their hands because the mythicists have spent, as expected, a lot of time and energy showing that it’s not a historically reliable work.  But again historicists don’t have to play that game.  Historicists do not need the New Testament to be a historically accurate work.  It can have all sorts of inaccurate and even just plain invented details in it and so look more like the legend of King Arthur than a real history … as long as it accurate represents what the earliest Christians believed about these key doctrines.  If they really believed that there was a real Jesus, then we ought to conclude that there was one, and interpret Paul that way, which undercuts any basis mythicists have for their claims.

And none of the typical counters work here.  They can argue that the Gospels were written rather late and look like ancient biographies rather than histories which can have all sorts of invented details, but the key thing here is that unlike for King Arthur we have a relatively unbroken chain from the initial Christian movement to the Christian movement that decided what was or wasn’t canonical and that wrote down the Gospels and the other New Testament works.  We can expect that the main Christian movement would have kept at least some of the main doctrines from the initial Christian movement, and so wouldn’t have accepted these works if they greatly contradicted that.  So if the Gospel writers were simply making things up as Carrier often claims, why would the Christians at the time accept these things, so much so that these ultimately became the canon?  Yes, movements and religions change and drift through a number of mechanisms, but from what I’ve seen so far — and again I haven’t read the detailed arguments in the books yet — I haven’t seen any arguments to show how that drift happened other than asserting that it did (Carrier has a post talking about it that I’ve read but don’t recall being that impressed by, and I’m not going to look it up here).  We can even see a reason to think otherwise from Carrier’s own argument here:

This was in fact so obvious that Medieval Christians tried changing the texts of Paul, to switch out his preferred word for “made” for his preferred word for “born,” conspicuously in both Galatians 4:4 and Romans 1:3 (they thus recognized their problem existed in both verses). This fact is also mentioned by us in our argument, and was also dishonestly ignored and was never mentioned or answered by O’Neill in that video, even though it proves that Medieval Christians understood exactly what I am saying. They agreed Paul’s idiom was as I am explaining; and they knew therefore that they desperately needed to change what he said, to change his careful selection of verbs to match his own consistent idiom and still say what they wanted him to say: that Jesus was “born,” and not, like light, the world, and Eve, “made” (these kinds of telltale changes, to “create” evidence for a historical Jesus, are evident across Christendom: the second century Ignatius also tried swapping these verbs out, for example, among much else to historicize Jesus).

Carrier tries to imply that the reason this change was made was because they saw that Carrier’s argument made sense and wanted to change things to not support it, but it’s a perfectly reasonable counter to say that they did see that the word choice made it ambiguous — the Docetists were making the same sort of argument Carrier was making — and since they were more interested in instructing rather than making literal translations/transcriptions changed it to align with what they thought was the case.  Which means aligning it to a historicist view, since that’s what they held.  What this means is that if the Gospels were changing things and if those changes were being accepted it would be more likely that those changes would be more in alignment with what the main Christian movement already believed, not contradictory to it.  And so since we have an unbroken line from early Christianity to the time when the New Testament was created, our initial presumption should be that the important and consistent things in the Gospels probably were things that the early Christians believed.  And there is nothing more clear in the Gospels than that Jesus was real and had a real ministry.

Carrier would likely respond that he has all sorts of arguments to discredit the New Testament on these points.  Presumably, these are in his books.  But one additional point of interest here is that his arguments cannot rely overmuch on Paul itself.  The first reason for this is that it would create a bit of a circular argument, as the reason mythicists want to put aside the New Testament in favour of Paul is because they think that they can find an interpretation in Paul that is more amenable to their position, but that they can interpret Paul that way isn’t sufficient reason to say that we should ignore the context of the New Testament.  The second and more serious reason is what I mentioned above, which is that how we should interpret Paul will depend on what we end up thinking the earliest Christians believed.  If the earliest Christians believed what the New Testament says they believed, we would interpret Paul’s comments about them in light of that and so in line with historicism.  Given that, Carrier cannot say that he can interpret Paul in a mythicist way and so we should count that interpretation against the New Testament’s accuracy, because there is the obvious counter that we can also interpret Paul in a historicist way and, more importantly, in line with the New Testament.  So they’d need either to rely mostly on other sources or else find some cases in Paul where we can’t reasonably interpret those cases in a historicist way.

Suffice it to say, this seems like a tall order.  When I get to the books, we’ll see if that’s what they did and how well that holds up.

Thorough Rebuttal to Carrier’s “The Problem with Nothing”

February 24, 2023

I’ve talked a bit in places about Richard Carrier’s argument about “The Problem with Nothing”, that he first outlined here and then talked about more informally here, but I don’t think I’ve outlined all of the issues with it in detail and all in one place. I’ve also come across it in the comment sections of blogs from people who tend to follow him, with people talking about how clever an argument it is.  Since I find it deeply flawed, I think it would make sense for me to write out all the problems with it in one place for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I could stop thinking about all of them, which is the entire reason this blog exists.

Let me start with an even more informal summary of the argument.  Carrier argues that if we had a state of true Nothing then there are no laws that can constrain what happens in such a Nothing (in his formal summary he says that all that can exist in such a state of Nothing is the logically necessary, but that wouldn’t be a Nothing as the philosophers use it and so wouldn’t count, as the Something that philosophers talk about is something that is, indeed, logically necessary).  But, he claims, if there are no such laws that means that we don’t have the laws of physics and sometimes he talks like the laws of logic wouldn’t really exist either.  So what this means is that without those laws and so without the constraints defining what can’t happen then it means that anything can happen, and so things would happen there pretty much at random.  In his detailed post, he uses this to argue that this could create multiverses. but ultimately in the second post he argues that no universe coming to exist from such a state is the most unlikely case, and thus concludes that if we really had that state of Nothing then some kind of universe is pretty much certain to occur, and so it is false to say that nothing comes from nothing and so we wouldn’t need a God — or, more importantly for my purposes, any kind of logically necessary Something — to explain how this universe comes into existence.  Therefore, “The Problem with Nothing” shows how Nothing will in fact always produce something, not the nothing that the philosophers — and theologians — assert.

So, let me start with the first problem:  for this to work, the laws of physics, at least, must be in a strong sense prescriptive.  They must act like, say, traffic laws, where they create strong constraints and enforce those constraints with some kind of force, whatever that might be in this case.  The problem is that the laws of physics are descriptive, not prescriptive.  They are laws that we invent as humans to describe how things in the universe interact, but aren’t laws that prescribe how things in the universe interact.  As such, the reason that we’d say that there are no laws of physics in the state of Nothing is not that we needed to remove these things from the universe to get to that state, but instead because there are no things in the state of Nothing to interact and so no interactions to describe.  So we couldn’t even get to Carrier’s rule that everything would happen randomly because there are no things for anything to happen to and for us to describe with “things happen randomly”.  If Carrier really has a Nothing as even he claims it — again, leaving out any specific thing that is logically necessary because that would be a Something — then he could not even say that anything could happen at random because that requires some kind of Something there whose interactions we could describe, and so create a law of physics from.  In short, if Carrier can even start to say that things would happen at random then he has precisely the sort of law that he claims we wouldn’t have in that state of Nothing, refuting his own point.

The second problem is that rules like the laws of physics are not solely used to describe what can’t happen in a universe.  Rules like these additionally — and more importantly — describe what can happen in a universe.  After all, the more important finding of the law of gravitation is not that if we jump in the air we can’t achieve escape velocity on Earth, but instead the formulas that allow us to calculate exactly what speed an object dropped from a height will achieve when it hits the ground, all things being equal.  So the importance of the laws of physics is that they tell us what can and will happen in a universe, and in Carrier’s state of Nothing there are not only no laws that tell us what can’t happen, but there are also no laws that tell us what can happen, which means that there are no laws that can tell us what will happen.  Carrier might think this supports his point by saying that therefore things would happen at random and every outcome would be equally probable, but that is itself a law that says what will happen which is the precise sort of law that Carrier says cannot exist in his state of Nothing.  So it’s not just that we can’t say what can’t happen, but that we can’t say what can happen either, and so have no reason to think that anything can or will happen in such a state.

The third problem is that for Carrier’s argument to work it must be the case, as I talked about in the first problem, that the laws of physics and even laws of logic in some way enforce what can’t happen.  What this has to mean for it to work is that they must enforce that causally (and Carrier talks about there not being causation in the first post on “The Problem with Nothing”).  What this means, then, is that the reason we can’t do something in any universe is not because it can’t be done, but instead because these rules and laws causally prevent us from doing that.  So the reason I can’t jump in the air and achieve escape velocity is not because the various forces combine as per our descriptions of them to prevent it, but instead because the Law of Gravity causally intervenes to stop me from doing that.  If the Law of Gravity wasn’t there, then it could work, even if all the forces and formulas remained the same.  This is, to say the least, a very odd view of how the world works, and one that we have absolutely no reason to accept.  It makes much more sense to say that the laws of physics describe these existent situations and so describe the limitations placed on us by the state of the universe itself as opposed to the laws themselves creating the limitations.  But if that’s the case, then Carrier’s argument that if there are no laws of physics we have no such constraints and so anything can happen fails, as it was never the laws creating the constraints in the first place.  All he could do is argue that all constraints are removed because there are no forces and objects in the universe to create those limitations … but then again there are no forces and objects in the universe to do anything, even create random sets of universes, and so we’d still need an explanation for how anything at all can happen in Carrier’s state of Nothing.

The last problem is probably the most damaging one philosophically, but is probably the one that most people will consider the least interesting.  The issue is that in order for the laws of physics to have causal power, they have to exist to be able to cause things.  This, then, means that Carrier needs abstracts to have actual existence.  This means that he cannot be a nominalist about such concepts and argue that they are defined by consensus, nor can he be a conceptualist of my stripe arguing that they are concepts that we discover and apply and can apply across possible worlds.  They can’t be things that primarily exist in the minds of human beings — or other conceiving creatures — but must exist independently of humans and external to them.  And they can’t merely as part of the objects in the universe either because they’d have to govern how those objects interact.  From this, it looks like Carrier needs to adopt some kind of Platonic Realism about at least the laws of physics, making them real objects that we cannot in any way observe empirically and yet are real enough to act on the world.  This causes a couple of huge problems for Carrier.  If Carrier argues that these are physical, then he’d be inventing these physical objects that act nothing like pretty much all other physical objects that we’ve ever encountered.  We’ve never encountered any physical objects like them and even by his own epistemology he’d have no prior probability of such things existing.  But if he takes the normal tack of Platonic Realists and argues that they are non-physical, then that would refute his materialist view of the world and probably refute his naturalistic view of the world.  Either way, Carrier would need some significant evidence to get us to accept that such strange entities exist … and right now all he has is that it would allow him to solve the “Something from Nothing” problem in a way that would exclude it needing to be God.  That is, of course, not even close to being sufficient.

Ultimately, Carrier’s big mistake here is that his argument here treats the laws of physics as prescriptive rather than descriptive, which is the move that allows him to argue that without them we have no constraints on what can happen in a universe, and so anything can happen and so universes can and likely will be created in such a state of Nothing.  Once we understand that these laws merely describe how things in a universe can interact, we can see how they wouldn’t exist in such a state of Nothing and yet by that very fact we can be fairly certain that nothing at all could happen, as they describe what can and can’t happen in a universe and if we say that something can happen, even at random, then we have such a law and must, in fact, have at least one thing existing for us to have laws saying how that thing acts and interacts.  And once we have that case, we no longer have a state of Nothing at all, even as Carrier describes it.

Does God’s Justification for not Preventing Suffering Prevent Us From Preventing It?

February 17, 2023

Over at Bob Seidensticker’s “Only Sky” blog, he’s made a post entitled “The atheist has the moral foundation, not the Christian”.  This links to a paper at philpapers entitled “Atheism and the Basis of Morality” by Stephen Maitzen.  Since I’m going to look at that paper specifically, you might be curious about how the title of my post, is, well, nothing at all like their titles.  That’s because despite the fact that both Seidensticker and Maitzen link this to claims from theists that atheists have no basis for and even no real morality in order to oppose those sentiments, the argument itself doesn’t really do anything to address those arguments.  The reason that theists argue that atheists have no basis for their morality and theists do is entirely about how they could justify any objective claims at all.  As we shall see, the argument does nothing to defend atheists against that charge, and instead shows that at least one of our strongest moral intuitions is one that is untenable in a world where God does not prevent at least certain kinds of suffering and is considered justified in doing so.  So the interesting point in the paper is in fact not a claim that atheists have the real basis for morality, but is instead the fact that if the argument works what we might consider to be a strong moral obligation for us turns out to be one that we are not only not morally obligated to do, but in fact are morally obligated to not do.

I’m going to mostly ignore Seidensticker’s post, because it’s just a summary of the paper itself and in trying to make it more clear actually muddles it a bit, as we can see from the first Axiom he outlines:

Axiom 1: For simplicity and to avoid disagreement, “ordinary morality” has been simplified to “we have the moral obligation to prevent easily preventable extreme suffering by a child.” That’s it.

The thing is that this is not what we reduce “ordinary morality” to, but instead Malizen basically takes this as a basic obligation that follows from and is part of our ordinary morality, and so if anything can be said to be part of our ordinary morality, this is.  This is important because that “avoid disagreement” part is going to be violated, as one of my main arguments is going to be to argue that our “ordinary morality” does not in fact have that as a basic obligation.  To defend that, someone would have to go to our ordinary morality and show how that obligation is really a part of it, which they couldn’t do if “ordinary morality” was “simplified” to that statement.  It is important to see that that is supposed to be part of ordinary morality and follow from it, not that we’ve simplified ordinary morality itself to that principle.

So, then, what is the argument?  I’m just going to summarize it instead of extensively quoting it because this is going to be long enough as it is.  Essentially, the argument is as follows:  It follows from our idea of ordinary morality that if we were to become aware of a child suffering unnecessarily we ought to relieve that suffering if it is in our power to do so.  The Christian God, at least, being all-powerful and all-knowing would always be aware of any such child and would always be able to prevent that suffering.  Being all-good, then, such a God should prevent all such suffering.  And yet we can see that such cases exist in this world that God does not prevent.  Up until now, this is just the standard “Problem of Suffering”, where we wonder why God doesn’t prevent suffering that He could easily prevent.  But Maitzen goes a step further and then tries to find a way where we could justify God not preventing that suffering.  And after examining a few options he concludes that such a God could only morally justify not preventing that suffering if He ultimately concluded that it was better for that child for them to experience that suffering, and points out that it can’t be the case that we are exploiting that child by making them suffer for the benefit of others because by our ordinary morality that wouldn’t be moral either.  So if this is true, then we could justify God still remaining moral even if He doesn’t relieve the child of that suffering.  But then if this suffering is really ultimately for the benefit of that child, how could we morally justify our relieving that child of that suffering?  If God determines that it is better for the child to suffer, how can we justify taking that benefit away from them to satisfy our own ideas of ordinary morality?  So if God is not morally obligated to relieve that child’s suffering, neither are we, and so if such a God exists then that basic axiom of ordinary morality is violated, which seems to overturn our ideas of ordinary morality as opposed to buttressing it as theists claim.

Right away we can see why this doesn’t justify either Seidensticker’s or Maitzen’s titles. Despite Maitzen saying this:

On the contrary, I argue that morality depends on rejecting theism. Our most serious moral obligations—obligations at the heart of what we might call “ordinary morality”—remain in place only if God doesn’t exist.

First, this would only apply to the tri-omni God of Christianity and possibly Islam and Judaism.  Any God that isn’t tri-omni is not vulnerable to this attack.  While this seems like a trivial point, it is important because it allows us to dodge the implication that the only option left is to reject theism and adopt an atheistic approach if we want to save “ordinary morality”, as we can instead drop part of the tri-omni God.  Second, and more importantly, if we cannot justify these moral obligations under theism that doesn’t mean that we can justify them under atheism either.  If the theists are correct, we cannot justify any moral obligations whatsoever under atheism, so all Maitzen would have succeeded in doing is undercutting any justification for, at least, ordinary morality whether we are theists or atheists.  So this argument simply cannot establish that we cannot base these moral obligations on theism but can base them on some sort of atheistic framework, so it doesn’t work as a response to that argument from theists.

That being said, it is an interesting argument, and so I’m going to spend the rest of this post examining whether the argument works and whether it really is the case that if God tries to justify His not relieving the unnecessary suffering of a child because it is better for the child that He doesn’t then we ourselves ought not relieve that unnecessary suffering either, and so that a God who does not act to relieve such suffering is indeed undercutting our ordinary morality.

The first objection I want to make is that it doesn’t seem like it actually is the case that ordinary morality says that if we become aware that a child is suffering unnecessarily we are morally obligated to prevent that suffering.  It seems like we consider such things to be supererogatory acts, which are acts that we think that all good people would want to do, but that no person is actually morally obligated to do.  For example, donating an organ to someone who is dying for lack of a donor is seen as that sort of act.  And Peter Singer’s famous argument about giving up going to a movie to give that money to charity to help a suffering child demonstrates that we consider such things to be supererogatory acts as well, since for most people the argument itself is rather counter-intuitive to our ordinary morality.  While we all get that a properly moral person is going to want to do that, we balk at considering it a moral obligation for them to do so or considering them an immoral person if they don’t, which is why Singer’s argument is so famous as it counter-intuitively insists that we ought to think of things that way.  And if we examine an actual case where a child is being abused by someone — which is an example that Maitzen uses — we can see that we would still stop short of considering a moral obligation for any one particular person — other than the abuser, of course — to prevent that suffering of that child.  Only if they were the only person who knew and were the only person who could prevent it might we consider them morally obligated to do so, as I argued in my critique of “A Defense of Abortion” … and even that is controversial and could be claimed to be only my personal moral stance and not the stance of ordinary morality.

So, then, if God could prevent that child’s suffering and we could prevent that child’s suffering, then ordinary morality might well claim that neither God nor us has a moral obligation to prevent that suffering, and so God could decide that it suits His purpose better to leave it to us to relieve it, or not.  And Maitzen needs it to be a moral obligation and not merely something that an all-good God would want to do, because if it’s merely something that an all-good God would want to do then all of the arguments about God’s ultimate purpose and what this world is supposed to be for are back on the table, as God could justify His non-intervention on the basis that He has no moral obligation and He wants his purpose to be fulfilled more (and that it is better for most of his creations if that happens).

So it looks like ordinary morality might not make such actions a moral obligation for God or us, and if it doesn’t do that then there’s no issue for God if He doesn’t intervene here.  But let’s look at what happens if we make this an actual moral obligation for God.  Maitzen takes the common tack of atheists with “The Problem of Suffering” and asks us to examine a very specific case:  that of a specific child suffering unnecessarily.  This has a tendency to evoke empathy in us for that specific case and also allows them to avoid considering the broader picture.  Surely, they argue, God could relieve the suffering of just this one child.  The problem is that once we make it a moral obligation for God to intervene in any specific case, we have to consider what that implies for all similar cases.  If God is morally obligated to relive the suffering of that one child, then why wouldn’t God also be obligated to relive the suffering of all children that are suffering unnecessarily?  And if God is morally obligated to prevent the unnecessary suffering of all children, then why isn’t He also morally obligated to relieve all unnecessary suffering, which by this analysis would mean relieving most of the suffering in the world?  What we end up with is an argument that this world should contain no suffering at all, and no Christian will accept any argument that has an implication that this world should contain no suffering, whether they justify the suffering in this world being due to Original Sin or that the suffering in this world is necessary to create a world where we can develop our moral capacities.  This world is not supposed to be the world without suffering; that’s what heaven is for.  And so if Maitzen tries to make it a moral obligation for God to prevent the suffering of that specific child he needs to either argue that God should have created a world without suffering despite God explicitly saying that that’s not what this world is supposed to be, or showing that God is only obligated to do that and not obligated to prevent any other suffering.  Neither of those options are arguments that are easy to get off the ground.

But Maitzen’s focus on a very specific case masks another, more serious, flaw in his argument.  By limiting it to that specific child, Maitzen encourages us to try to find benefits to that child that follow from that very specific situation, such as them having a disease or them being abused.  And if they are indeed benefiting from being in that very specific situation and God isn’t relieving them of that suffering because of that, then it makes sense that we ought not relieve them of that suffering either.  Both God and ourselves, then, would be in the exact same situation:  pondering whether we should relieve the child of their suffering in that very specific situation.  And if God decides that He ought not relieve the suffering of that child in that situation, then surely we ought to decide the same thing.

The thing is that God might decide that He should allow that child to suffer in that specific situation not because that specific suffering benefits the child, but because being in a world where such suffering can occur is better for that child than a world where such suffering can never occur.  At this point, all of the arguments about moral development requiring random suffering and about free will requiring the ability to cause suffering that Maitzen dismissed come back into the picture, in line with the argument above:  this is supposed to be a world with suffering in it and that world is better for all of us than a world without any suffering in it, and so any individual person who is suffering is still better off for being in a world with that suffering despite the fact that they are, indeed suffering.  And one of the ways such a world is a better one for us precisely because such a world gives us the opportunity to choose to relieve that suffering … or not.  To return to the case of the specific child, let’s consider the case of a child who falls and skins their knee, and then has a loving parent come to them, wipe away their tears, kiss their boo-boo and make it better, leaving them feeling safe and secure and basking in the love of their parent.  That world is not possible if that child could never suffer, and that experience itself is far more valuable to the child than the suffering that they felt that allowed for it.  In fact, many theists will argue that the suffering that they themselves went through allowed them to experience that feeling from God, which is why they believe so strongly in God.  A world where we can feel the comfort of a loved one when we are suffering as they try to relieve our pain, or a world where we can feel grateful to and redeem our faith in humanity by the acts of a stranger to help us is a far better world where none of that could happen, even if sometimes it doesn’t as us flawed humans choose not to help or do that.  If God is obligated to do our good deeds for us, then we can never do them ourselves, and the chance that we might fail to do so does not remove the benefits when we succeed to do them.

So even if we are forced to argue that the only way God can justify not relieving the suffering of that child is because it benefits that child, it turns out that God can indeed do so while still allowing us to justify relieving that suffering ourselves.  In fact, that justification actually does provide a basis for that “ordinary morality” because the benefit to that child is in fact a world where it is indeed left up to us to relieve that suffering.  We ourselves must relieve that suffering ourselves because leaving us that option is the reason God won’t intervene Himself.  Thus, Maitzen’s argument does not show that we cannot justify ordinary morality if we believe that God exists, and when properly fleshed out ends up proving the exact opposite:  if a tri-omni God exists, the only reason for that suffering to exist in this world is for us to relieve it ourselves, so we need to stop demanding that God do it and get to work doing it ourselves.

Why Atheist Arguments Don’t Convince Me

February 10, 2023

As noted on Wednesday, now that I’ve finished reading the Shakespeare I’ve switched to splitting my laundry reading time between King Arthur and philosophy.  And first up is me getting back into the theism/theological debates, because I have been reading a lot of Richard Carrier’s stuff and decided to take on the stuff he was recommending, which means that eventually I’ll be getting into the weeds of the mythicism/historicism debate beyond the minor comments I’ve made on that before.  But before I get to that, I have some other works to read, which includes two collections of arguments by John W. Loftus that Carrier references a bit and as of right now — although I’m still debating it — the entire Bible.  I need to read Paul to understand the references Carrier is going to make — and, in fact, had reading that as a philosophical exercise as one of the things I wanted to do but never got around to — and given the length of that compared to the other things I’m going to read it seems not that much more difficult to just read the entire thing … which will also leave me able to say that I have read it completely and, hopefully, that doing that hasn’t changed my religious beliefs.

But first up is something that was inspired by the fact that Richard Carrier spent a lot of time criticizing Justin Brierley’s “Unbelieveable?”, and I spent some time responding to that.  So before I started and as part of the order I made to get the works Carrier wrote and recommended I threw it in figuring that I should actually read his book and see if Carrier represented it properly, and give my own opinion on it.  I have just started it, but coming into it I figure that I won’t find it as problematic as Carrier did but won’t really agree with it or his arguments either, because my views on this whole thing are quite a bit different from most people’s.  This is despite the fact that he wrote the book to explain why after spending ten years witnessing first hand the debates between atheists and Christians and thus being exposed to the best arguments for atheists that he nevertheless remains a Christian, and for the most part I’ve had less direct access but have been exposed to them as well and have been equally unimpressed.  We have come to the same conclusion, but likely have done that for very different reasons.

So, here, let me talk about why I have been ultimately unimpressed by the atheist arguments.  While I have to admit that some of their arguments have been somewhat challenging and raise issues that good theology/apologetics need to take seriously, I haven’t found any argument that has really shaken my belief.  But the really big reason why I am unimpressed by the new atheist arguments and the new atheist movements themselves is my experience that no matter how strongly they insist that the belief in God is just completely irrational and that they know that God doesn’t exist ultimately, when pressed, they ultimately end up at the rather weak argument of “There just isn’t enough evidence to prove that God exists”, soon followed by an insistence that they don’t have to prove that God doesn’t exist and that the burden of proof is all on the theist.

And, in some sense, they’re correct on that.  Unless Christians or other theists can make good arguments that justify epistemic knowledge — which means excluding simple faith since that is personal and cannot be shared — then in order to say that they don’t believe God exists — which, again, is the position that they always get pushed to no matter how strongly they insist that God doesn’t exist — and justify that claim all they need to say is that they don’t find the evidence compelling enough to believe in.  Since I don’t believe that I know that God exists and in general believe that we can’t know whether or not God exists, I consider this a reasonable position.  However, since I still think it reasonable for me to believe in God I don’t think their position is the only reasonable one.  This ties into my epistemological view that mere beliefs are the things we form when we feel the need to take a position on a topic but don’t have the justification for knowledge.  As such, they are always provisional but we take the epistemological tack of acting on them in the world and waiting for the world to contradict us.  My objection to the other common tack atheists take in line with skepticism that we should always withhold belief in such cases is entirely that doing that is not useful.  If you aren’t going to test it, and the truth of it matters, then simply withholding belief either way means that you will never discover whether or not it is true and then when you act in the world in ways where that proposition matters you have no guidance as to how you should act on it, meaning that you are acting on arguably less relevant propositions, which can’t be a good way to approach the world.

So, as long as the atheist is merely talking about what they believe, they dodge the burden of proof.  However, many atheists aren’t just talking about what it is reasonable for them to believe, but about what is reasonable for everyone to believe, leading to the point that they think that theists are irrational for believing that God exists.  And if you are going to make that claim, you need to do more than simply say “I don’t find the evidence compelling”.  If you aren’t going to delve into epistemology, there are two ways to do that.  The first is to demonstrate that you know that the belief is false, and so in this case indeed prove to the level of knowledge that God doesn’t exist, using evidence that is equally available to the theist you are arguing with (this is why I argue that we can’t use faith to argue against the atheist, since faith isn’t accessible to someone who doesn’t have that faith already).  Thus, if they wanted to take that tack, they would have to violate their own stance and accept that, yes, they have to establish that God doesn’t exist and so could not retreat to talking about having a mere lack of belief.  The other way is to agree that you don’t have that level of evidence, but instead point out that believing in God contradicts something else they believe to be true.  Some atheists do try to do this, arguing that religion clashes with science and that they can’t accept both, or that science proves that the world is entirely natural which also contradicts religion.  The problem here is that this approach is very personal, since it involves finding a contradiction in that person’s beliefs, and the issue for the atheists that use these arguments is that they are arguing based on what they believe and not based on what the Christians believe.  For example, I don’t find any inherent contradiction between science and religion and find naturalism, as a philosophical worldview, untenable and meaningless.  So firing those arguments off at me will not raise any important conflicts in my Web of Belief.  Which leads to the deeper problem with these arguments, which is that to pull it off it requires the person to accept it and resolve the conflict in their beliefs in the way the atheist hopes, but it’s always possible that they will adjust their beliefs to resolve the conflict or bite the bullet and accept the supposed contradiction.  In fact, apologetics is entirely about resolving these apparent contradictions in an at least somewhat palatable way.  If they can do that, then the argument falls flat, and the atheist does not have a claim justified to the level of knowledge to fall back on to prove that move irrational.

Ultimately, then, the reason why I am not impressed by the atheistic arguments and have become even less impressed by them as I have been exposed to more of them is entirely that they have been revealed to be hollow.  Ultimately, even those atheists who have made the strongest knowledge claims — like Bob Seidensticker’s supposed “Silver Bullets” — have failed to pull off those arguments and always end up retreating to the position that they don’t need to provide such proof.  But if they had such arguments they would provide them — since they are usually trying to provide them — and this retreat only signifies their acceptance of the fact that they can’t actually do that.  And yet they still insist that believing in God is just irrational while always retreating, when pressed, to the position that the reason the belief in God is irrational because they aren’t convinced of the evidence (even insisting that there is no such evidence).  But that they aren’t convinced is not enough to prove that I shouldn’t be convinced, and all of the most popular atheist arguments are ones that work for them personally but don’t work at a general level.  They are emotional ones like “The Problem of Evil” or clashes in their personal philosophical worldviews like science versus faith or their commitment to naturalism.  And I don’t share those personal clashes, and so the more they insist that those are clinching arguments the more convinced I am that they have no real epistemological or philosophical or rational weight behind their arguments.  So while I’m willing to grant that their lack of belief or even belief in lack is not irrational, I am in no way convinced that my belief is irrational as they would insist.  And their constant retreat from the universal to the personal only makes my skepticism towards their arguments stronger.

So that’s why I haven’t found their arguments convincing and indeed have become more convinced that they don’t have the necessary arguments to make atheism the only rational position.  For me, they have failed at the epistemological level and at the philosophical level, and admit that every time they retreat to insisting that the burden of proof is on the theist.  This view is likely not how Brierley sees it, but I’ll find that out as I go through his book.

Bayesian Analysis a la Carrier: Carrier on Winling-Michney

February 3, 2023

This is the last of Richard Carrier’s attempts to show how to use Bayesian reasoning to assess a thesis in history.  It’s an examination of the factors that led to “redlining”, written by LaDale C. Winling and Todd M. Michney.  Now, originally this paper was available from the link Carrier gave and I skimmed it, but it’s no longer available now, at least not for me, so I can’t re-read it and comment on it myself.  However, the main reason that I only skimmed it was that it was a bit long and seemed to be more a description of those historical events and that historical period, meaning that deriving a thesis from that would be difficult.  Still, it wasn’t an uninteresting history but at the time I was already reading Pierre Berton talking about Canadian history, and since his writing was so much better and his history so much more interesting I wasn’t really in the mood to read something else in that vein.  And even stylistically they seemed similar because while they definitely made some explicit links to racism Berton would also make comments on such things — like how the natives were treated in and around the War of 1812, for example — without making an explicit thesis out of it.  So I didn’t really see a strong thesis and so considered it for the most part a more or less interesting summary of the historical events.  Nothing that you could hang the label of being a sterling example of Critical Race Theory, as Carrier does here.

So, what are the sorts of things it talks about?  Well, it starts historically from a point in time where there weren’t really strong metrics that banks could use to determine who was a good risk for a mortgage, and so they were very hesitant to grant mortgages to potential home buyers.  This, of course, was a depressing factor in the housing market itself, meaning that housing prices and even house sales were far lower than they could have been and that pretty much everyone wanted them to be.  But the issue was that the banks were not being unreasonable, as if they didn’t have a good way to determine who was or wasn’t a good risk then they’d risk losing their money and, through that, their customers’ money … and banks losing money is never a good thing and always causes issues.  So an attempt was made to use statistics and the like to determine what the real risk was for these sorts of transactions so that banks didn’t have to guess at it and so could take more risks, potentially even hoping that if they got it wrong in some cases the statistical probabilities would ultimately work out in their favour and so they’d still make a profit.  These considerations ultimately led to the processes being used by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (Holc) and adopted by the Federal Housing Administration (Fha).

How does this relate to redlining?  Well, one of the factors that was considered was the neighbourhood a house was in, and one of the things that was explicitly added to their considerations was the fact that WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) in general didn’t want to move into neighbourhoods that had a majority or potentially even a significant presence of people who were not them, ranging from black people — the group most mentioned wrt redlining — to Latinos, Asians, Jews, the Irish, the Polish, and probably some others.  Thus, the resale values of houses in such neighbourhoods were not as high as in other neighbourhoods, and so prices didn’t rise as fast, and so they baked those considerations into their calculations.  While, again, some white neighbourhoods ended up in the lowest category — thus, the highest risk — almost all black neighbourhoods ended up in that category.  This, then, formed the basis of redlining.

So, right here, this forms the basis of my skepticism about Critical Race Theory, which is similar to my skepticism about existentialist philosophy.  I don’t see any reason to deny these historical events, but don’t think we need something like Critical Race Theory to find this out and talk about it.  So if that’s all it’s doing, then it doesn’t seem to need an entire philosophical movement/area to do this.  But it does tend to go further, in the sense that it seems to most often actually judge these things as racist and build this into a narrative that includes details of conscious and subconscious racism and all the impacts of that.  Again, to find the real impacts of that does not require an entire philosophical category for that, but the concern is that it seems a bit insular and is more a complete theoretical and philosophical worldview than a simple methodology that was originally used in Legal Studies but now is used to talk about other areas as well.  As a simple methodology, it isn’t interesting and risks us interpreting things that are not best interpreted in a racial context in such a context, causing issues and introducing errors.  But once it starts saying really interesting things that are unique to it or even easier examined through it it seems to have fallen into being a worldview, and thus asking us to accept things that follow from the worldview and not the evidence.  As such, my initial thought is that either we don’t need it or it’s leading us astray.  Even for an article like this I would much rather simply ignore any Critical Race Theory and look at this from a more neutral perspective, and it seems to me that any conclusions they draw or wish to draw really need to be ones that we can see from that perspective.  If we ever really, really needed a CRT perspective to see something, I would have to suspect that it isn’t really there..  Thus, about the only use for CRT is as a statement of personal research interest — like mine of Stoicism — and once someone starts making claims from that that are supposed to apply generally they are going to have to come up with a way to express that that does not rely on a CRT perspective, in the same way that if I want to talk about ethics in general I have to make the argument from a perspective that applies beyond the specific perspective and assumptions of Stoicism.

Anyway, moving on from that, as usually Carrier has to weigh in himself on these matters, and makes an … interesting statement about how all of this stuff works:

 Because most property is bought on mortgage, it is not in fact “the buyer” who is dictating prices, as if in some fictional Adam Smith utopia. If the buyer can’t get a mortgage, their price offer is going to be far lower than anything you can imagine, and sellers will either have to treat property as worth a great deal less than we now treat it, or just never sell (or only sell to the mega-rich, which will inevitably result in all land only being owned by what will then be in effect a landed aristocracy). So it’s really the banks deciding what property is worth, and it’s mortgages that drive prices to the lofty heights we now see. The buyer has some impact, insofar as what mortgage terms they can accept limit what prices they can offer to a seller, but even those terms are set by the banks. And banks do have some limits in what terms they can offer and still make a net profit on the market, so buyer limits on what terms they can accept still play a role in setting market prices. But the banks play an even larger role. And when the government is involved in backing mortgages to expand home ownership (which it has an interest to do to secure economic stability, and thus national prosperity, and thus even national security), really, the government is setting the actual pricing regime.

The issue is that this isn’t how it all works.  Sure, mortgage rates and what can be insured do have an impact — as noted in my summary — but they don’t determine it.  Houses had values and houses were sold before this system came in and before there was any insurance, so there is indeed a market here that determines prices.  In fact, this whole system was based on what the market was actually saying, including that a significant part of the market didn’t want to buy houses in those neighbourhoods.  So, yes, it has an impact and even a significant one, but it’s not determining it.  See, what happens in these cases most commonly is that people get an idea from the bank or a mortgage broker or whomever how much of a mortgage they can afford, and then go looking for a house that they can afford, like Shamus Young did:

The bank approved me for $N house loan, and so I just passed that number along to the realtor. They showed me houses in that range. I was shopping in passive mode. I’d had such phenomenal good fortune with my first home that I didn’t realize the danger I was facing.

Certainly before “pre-approval” became such a big thing, there were far more cases where someone found a house they liked, negotiated a price, and then went to get a mortgage where they might be denied.  But this would only impact prices if there were no buyers who could get a mortgage for that price.  If the problem was more that the buyer was overreaching than that the house was priced too high for the banks to accept, then that rejection would have no impact on the market prices.  When banks will give out bigger mortgages, then yes that will allow housing prices to reach the heights that we have recently seen, but in large part that is happening because of the market itself.  One of the things that Todd — the realtor — on “Love or List it Vancouver” constantly does at the end of the show is show that the house that the people are considering listing to purchase a new house has increased in value by X amount from the renovations, which then brings the price of the house that they want to buy — which is almost always higher in price than their current house and often higher in price than their initial budget — more attainable for them.  If housing prices increase, then for those who already have a house that price increase gives them the equivalent of a larger “down payment”, which allows them to purchase a more expensive house than they would otherwise, and that then allows them to not have to negotiate down a house price as much, which then allows houses to maintain or increase in value in ways they couldn’t otherwise.  Thus, the banks are always reacting to the market, and not dictating it.  If housing prices are going up and banks don’t increase their limits along with it, that would be a drag on prices but eventually they would be depressing the market so much — by not allowing people to actually buy houses — that they’d be back in the initial conditions that this process was invented to resolve:  no one buys houses, banks don’t have mortgage investments, and the real estate market is, well, not moving at all.  This can be fixed either by prices stagnating or the banks altering their limits to allow for it … and, again, with many people selling existing houses to buy the new ones that increase in value will carry over and make the higher prices more palatable than they would otherwise, and as long as some people can afford those higher prices — through increased housing prices or increased savings — then the banks will still give out the mortgages.

Insurance has the same impact, but in the opposite way.  It allows the banks to feel more confident in giving out mortgages because if they take a risk and it doesn’t pay off — in the sense that the buyer ends up defaulting on the loan — the insurance will cover off the cost of the house and so they’ll still make their money.  So while raising the limits on mortgages is a reaction to the prices going higher but can then be buttressed by the market being better, insurance allows banks to ensure that they don’t lose their investment and so take more risks.  That then allows prices to go higher because more people have the higher prices in their reasonable range than they would otherwise.

So the whole point of this entire thing is to sooth the worries of the banks and so allow them to release more money to buyers, which then can allow the prices of houses to increase to higher values because that money is available.  But it’s never the case that banks dictate what the prices should be in any way, as they are reacting to what amounts are being asked of them, and that’s the price that the market reflects.  If housing prices drop or people start having bigger down payments, the banks will blithely go on as before.  So Carrier’s analysis here doesn’t capture how the market actually works, which leads him to the erroneous — and rather puzzling — conclusion that the market is at best a minimal player here instead of it being the main driving force, with the banks and government influencing but not dictating it.

Now, you might ask where in my analysis does the neighbourhood come into play?  All of my discussions have focused on individual buyers and the price they want to pay for a house, not on what neighbourhood that house is in.  Now, it’s clear that from the above discussion if they had a house in one of these high risk neighbourhoods and wanted to use that as the down payment for the new one the drag on prices in that neighbourhood from the perceived risk would limit what house they could buy using that, which would have an impact.  But it seems to me that one of the big concerns with redlining was that it was considered when people were buying houses in that neighbourhood, and while in general today to the best of my knowledge banks don’t look too closely at that, it seems like they have a reason to, which again comes into the category of risk, which is what happens if someone buys a house in that neighbourhood and then defaults on the loan.  If the prices in those neighbourhoods doesn’t risk that quickly or even go down, then if the bank forecloses on the property they might not make their money back.  Which is actually the situation Shamus Young found himself in after the mistake he made above:

Generally, when you’re dealing with a mortgage in default you’ve got three basic things you can do. In order, from least destructive to most destructive:

  1. Re-negotiate or re-finance the loan. You can mess around with the interest rate or payment terms of the loan to make it easier to handle. The bank might make less money in the long run, or they might make more money but wait a lot longer to get it. The deadbeats get only a modest black mark on their record. This isn’t a bad outcome.
  2. Short sale. If the deadbeat owes more than the house is worth, have them sell the house and all proceeds go to the bank. The bank can usually get a much better price for the place this way than if they unload it at auction. The bank takes a modest loss and the deadbeat walks away with nothing. Not a bad outcome, although the deadbeat needs to be willing to work with the bank. If they dig in and fight to stay in the house, then this option isn’t available.
  3. Foreclose. Boot out the deadbeats and sell the house. The deadbeats get a massive black mark on their record and basically can’t borrow any money for a long time. The bank unloads the house at auction and gets a fraction of the value. Everyone loses.

The only option Shamus had was 2), and when the bank didn’t want to accept an offer for some reason he had to do 3), and the reason was this:

They tell me to put the house on the market, which is impossible because I don’t know what they want to ask for it. If the place was any further underwater I’d have to pay my property taxes in seashells. There’s no possible way we could ask for the balance I owe, so the bank needs to take some kind of loss, here. I have no idea how much.

So if a bank accepts mortgage in a neighbourhood where prices might go down, then they would want more assurances that the buyer can pay it off because they will likely take a loss if the buyer defaults on the loan.  Even if the prices won’t rise as much as other areas they might get their initial investment back but will lose all their potential gains, which would make it a bad investment.  So they are likely to look at ensuring that the buyer is more likely to pay back the amount of the loan with interest in those neighbourhoods that are considered higher risk due to prices not rising as much than in those neighbourhoods where the prices are rising.

Which leads to a question about the “redlining” and about how to deal with it.  Carrier says this about how the banks could solve it:

Thus, for example, the government, and banks, could simply valuate property in Black neighborhoods based on comparables in White neighborhoods—thereby accounting for all factors except race. That would require conscious admission that racism exists, and a conscious accounting of race—the opposite of “color-blind” decision making. The color-blind can’t see racism, and thus ironically sustain and perpetuate it; whereas the color-conscious can control for the variable of race and thus eliminate racism in pricing, returning it to just an evaluation of actual objective facts that matter.

The first problem here was that, of course, the very processes being complained about were explicitly not colour-blind.  They explicitly included race as a factor.  However, their reply would be that at the time that was certainly true and certainly the case, and so they couldn’t ignore it.  If a significant portion of the market and the market that had the better jobs and most available resources didn’t want to buy houses in such a neighbourhood, then that would definitely put a drag on prices and thus on the valuation.  If they valuated the properties higher for the purposes of risk assessment, the banks then would risk running into situations where they couldn’t sell the properties for enough to avoid taking losses on the mortgage if the buyer defaulted.  Their reply, then, would be that this solution would involve them denying the actual reality and using ideology to determine their actions, which would likely result in disaster — and banks can do that well-enough on their own, thank you very much — and would violate Carrier’s ideas of always ensuring that your beliefs reflect reality.

The question here, then, is if their considerations are reasonable and necessary and what we can do to mitigate these.  Insurance is actually one way to deal with this by making it so that banks don’t need to worry about resale value so much, although it has its own issues.  A neutral analysis would not ignore race but would not assume that if, say, blacks are disadvantaged by it that the problem is with the policy, and Carrier’s whole analysis here assumes that and tries to change the policy instead of trying to find a way to reduce the risks to the banks themselves.

Anyway, that’s basically Carrier’s take here, and now it’s time to discuss his Bayesian analysis which, as usual, is short and vague:

The Winling-Michney thesis has a strong prior probability. They demonstrate this with extensive summaries and citations to background knowledge establishing how it fits the context of American society at the time, in society and government. And it has a strong likelihood ratio. Their accumulated evidence has no other plausible explanation (because it’s vastly less probable on any alternative to theirs). But this in turn tells us what we would need to “refute” their thesis. There are two possible avenues. First, one could try to show that they have misrepresented the evidence in crucial ways, thus undermining their case for a strong prior probability or likelihood ratio. But their documentation is extensive and by my own sampling solid and accurate, so this does not seem likely. Second, one could try to show that they have left out evidence that, when reinserted, would flip these probabilities the other way around. For example, maybe some other figure was more important and influential than Richard Ely in producing the outcomes documented in the Winling-Michney thesis. The evidence would have to be more probable on that alternative explanation, which means something would have to be improbable about Winling and Michney’s evidence on their thesis. And from what they present, that also seems very unlikely. In fact, it’s hard to find an example of anything not fully expected on their thesis; which means it cannot be outdone by any greater probability. Which brings us back to the “misrepresentation” concern, already deemed unlikely.

Nevertheless, if one wants to refute a thesis like this, they have to do it empirically, and that means they have to do either of those things: show that the evidence they present is not as expected on the Ely Nexus causal model as Winling and Michney claim, but more expected on some alternative causal model; or show that some evidence has been left out that, when put back in, tanks the Ely Nexus causal model’s prior probability or likelihood ratio. That is, you need evidence that is more probable on another causal model than theirs. If you can’t find it, despite a diligent search, then you simply have to concede that epistemically, their explanation of the evidence is by far the most likely. So much so, in fact, that it is itself a historical fact. And indeed, that is what we mean by “historical fact,” a proposition whose posterior epistemic probability is so high that it would be a logical absurdity to regard it as false.

As usual, Carrier gives no numbers for a method that heavily relies on real numbers.  In addition, here Carrier talks about how other theories aren’t as probable without mentioning any of them, which means that he can’t know that there aren’t better theories out there.  And again his discussions ignore the specific content and talk about things in a general way.  Yes, here Carrier will claim that he’s pointing to the evidence in the article itself that we could, at least at the time, peruse, but it isn’t even clear what thesis he’s really defending here, since it isn’t clear what thesis they were defending.  That the policy contained those considerations and that it had those impacts seems clear, but also seems uninteresting.  The important thing would be whether or not those considerations were valid and what we should do given that history, which Carrier talks about but doesn’t reference from their thesis.

At any rate, as per the other ones, I don’t really see Carrier using Bayesian analysis here or that really adding anything.  Carrier spends all his time convincing himself that what they say is reasonable and then at the end handwaves some Bayesian terms to declare it reasonable by Bayesian terms.  And now Carrier is doing this for philosophy and things are not any better.  I have not seen, in any of these examples, any case where Carrier is actually using the Bayesian analysis to determine if the thesis is sound as opposed to using it as a rationalization of something that he already believes or is already convinced of just from reading the article.  And if that’s what he’s going to do, then he doesn’t need Bayesian analysis at all.  So these attempts to show how all proper reasoning is Bayesian, can be done in a Bayesian way, and really should be Bayesian end up with so diminished a presence of any Bayesian analysis that it looks extraneous, not vital.

Answering Ultima IV’s Virtue Questions

January 31, 2023

Let’s mix some philosophy and some video gaming in this post.  I’ve mentioned a few times before that I sometimes read the old posts on The CRPG Addict while compiling or installing (or in a boring meeting), mostly because he maintains a big list of all the games he’s played so that I can simply open the next entry in a new tab and follow along with that playthrough instead of having to scroll through all the pages like with the other blogs he recommends.  So I had read before and have just read again his entries on the Ultima series, which leads to reading about Ultima IV and its character creation system.  That game associated each class with one of the eight Virtues in the game and then ran you through a list of questions that pitted the Virtues against each other in an elimination sort of deal until there was only one left.  As these questions were based on balancing Virtues against each other, they have ethical implications, and I know that I had always wanted to go through them and answer them all as per my own philosophical views and worldview.

Now the time has come.  I was re-reading his Ultima posts and decided that I really, really wanted to do this.  I’m going to keep track of which answers map to which Virtue and see which Virtue I select the most.  I haven’t read most of the questions before starting — obviously, I read the ones he answered to get his character — and so will be going in blind, but I will give my reasoning for each answer.  And I really, really hope that I didn’t actually do this once and forgot about it …

Entrusted to deliver an uncounted purse of gold, thou dost meet a poor beggar. Dost thou A) deliver the gold knowing the Trust in thee was well-placed; or B) show Compassion, giving the Beggar a coin, knowing it won’t be missed?

I think A).  If I wanted to give something to the Beggar here, it should be my own money, not someone else’s.  It just seems wrong to rely on “They’ll never miss it” to get them to effectively give to the Beggar out of what is stated to be my own Compassion.  (Honesty).

Thou has been prohibited by thy absent Lord from joining thy friends in a close pitched battle. Dost thou A) refrain, so thou may Honestly claim  obedience; or B) show Valor, and aid thy comrades, knowing thou may deny it later?

This is a difficult one for me, who likes to claim that my real-life alignment is Lawful, but that that means that I follow the spirit and not the letter of the law.  I wouldn’t do it to be able to claim honestly that I obeyed, but more that there is probably a reason for it — and I might even know what that reason is — and so I’d only join in if I didn’t think that reason held given the new circumstances.  So with only the information presented here, I think I will say that I wouldn’t join in the battle since the reason probably still holds.  (Honesty).

A merchant owes thy friend money, now long past due. Thou dost see the same merchant drop a purse of gold. Dost thou A) Honestly return the purse intact; or B) Justly give thy friend a portion of the gold first?

This one is clearly A).  That’s a debt between the two of them and it’s not my place to settle it for them.  I might hint to them that paying some of that gold to the friend would be a good way to pay me back for returning it.  (Honesty).

Thee and thy friend are valiant but penniless warriors. Thou both go out to slay a mighty dragon. Thy friend thinks he slew it, thee did. When asked, dost thou A) Truthfully claim the gold; or B) Allow thy friend  the large reward?

As stated, I’d choose A), as I need it as much as he does and assuming that I’m right about who killed it I should claim the gold.  If he needed the gold more than I did I might be tempted to lie there, but I could easily split the gold with him anyway if it’s just about money.  (Honesty).

Thou art sworn to protect thy Lord at any cost, yet thou knowest he hath  committed a crime. Authorities ask thee of the affair, dost thou A) break thine oath by Honestly speaking; or B) uphold Honor by silently keeping thine oath?

As stated, I’d tell the truth.  An oath that makes me lie just because I swore an oath isn’t any kind of oath at all, and this fits into my “spirit of the law” mentality.  If there were terrible consequences for talking about it — for example, revealing Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere — then I would indeed be tempted to lie.  I would lie to protect my Lord from unjust harm, but not the reasonable consequences of his own actions.  (Honesty).

Thy friend seeks admittance to thy Spiritual order. Thou art asked to vouch for his purity of Spirit, of which thou art unsure. Dost thou A) Honestly express thy doubt; or B) Vouch for him, hoping for his Spiritual improvement?

I’ve been in situations like this with work recommendations, and I tend to be relatively honest, but also somewhat vague as I try to be diplomatic.  If I care at all about the person asking me or about the position, then I certainly couldn’t vouch for someone that I wasn’t sure about.  (Honesty).

Thy Lord mistakenly believes he slew a dragon. Thou hast proof that thy lance felled the beast. When asked, dost thou A) Honestly claim the kill and the prize; or B) Humbly permit thy Lord his belief?

This is quite similar to the case above, although here I don’t lose anything.  In an ideal circumstance I’d like to shrug and let it go, and on considering it what I’d like to do here is do the same thing:  shrug and say that it doesn’t matter how really felled it, and let it go at that.  So that’s actually closer to B), so I’ll go with that one.  (Humility).

Thou dost manage to disarm thy mortal enemy in a duel. He is at thy mercy. Dost thou A) show Compassion by permitting him to yield; or B) slay him as expected of a Valiant duelist?

A).  That he’s my mortal enemy doesn’t matter, and the rules of such duels would suggest permitting him to yield, and I don’t see any real reason to just kill a helpless opponent regardless.  (Compassion).

After 20 years thou hast found the slayer of thy best friends. The villain proves to be a man who provides the sole support for a young girl. Dost thou A) spare him in Compassion for the girl; or B) slay him in the name of Justice?

If slaying him is at all just, that he is supporting a young girl wouldn’t change that.  Nothing says that I can’t arrange for the girl to be supported regardless in some way, and sparing that sort of villain — who, if a real villain, is a murderer — is only likely to lead to more of that sort of villainy.  (Justice).

Thee and thy friends have been routed and ordered to retreat. In defiance of thy orders, dost thou A) stop in Compassion to aid a wounded companion; or B) Sacrifice thyself to slow the pursuing enemy, so others can escape?

B) is basically what Corran Horn’s grandfather did in “I, Jedi”, although he didn’t have the A) choice.  If I fight to slow the enemy, I am likely to save that companion and others besides, so I choose that one, assuming that my sacrifice won’t be in vain.  (Sacrifice).

Thou art sworn to uphold a Lord who participates in the forbidden torture of prisoners. Each night their cries of pain reach thee. Dost thou A) Show Compassion by reporting the deeds; or B) Honor thy oath and ignore the deeds?

A).  Again, an oath that would make me ignore and hide such things isn’t an oath worth keeping.  (Compassion).

Thou hast been taught to preserve all life as sacred. A man lies fatally stung by a venomous serpent. He pleads for a merciful death. Dost thou A) show Compassion and end his pain; or B) heed thy Spiritual beliefs and refuse?

This is a difficult question to answer unless you actually have such strong Spiritual beliefs, and my own beliefs are not that strong on these sorts of matters.  Turning to the general issues of religion that I’ve talked about before, this can be seen as a choice between imposing my beliefs on others by not granting him a merciful death that he thinks is acceptable and him trying to impose his beliefs on me by asking me to violate my beliefs when I think that murder.  Still, if I’m the only one who can do it I’d probably lean towards granting him his wish and spiritually atoning for it later, especially given that as an intentionalist I’d say that intention matters here and the intention is good.  (Compassion).

As one of the King’s Guard, thy Captain has asked that one amongst you visit a hospital to cheer the children with tales of thy valiant deeds. Dost thou A) Show thy Compassion and play the braggart; or B) Humbly let another go?

I have no desire for the glory or attention and in this case am no better suited for the task than anyone else.  So let someone who wants to go do it do it.  (Humility).

Thou hast been sent to secure a needed treaty with a distant Lord. Thy host is agreeable to the proposal but insults thy country at dinner. Dost thou A) Valiantly bear the slurs; or B) Justly rise and demand an apology?

A).  The treaty is needed and I can put up with someone being a jerk if needed.  If I let the insult get to me then I’d be failing in my duty and then the problem would be with me, not them.  (Valor).

A mighty knight accosts thee and demands thy food. Dost thou A) Valiantly refuse and engage the knight; or B) Sacrifice thy food unto the hungry knight?

If I felt that I could beat the knight, then I’d fight, unless he definitely needed it more, at which point I’d offer it to him and point out that he really should have just asked for it,  If I thought I’d lose, I’d give it to him.  Let’s call it B), then, as that would be the choice in most cases … including the one that best fits the virtue of Sacrifice.  (Sacrifice).

During battle thou art ordered to guard thy commander’s empty tent. The battle goes poorly and thou dost yearn to aid thy fellows. Dost thou A) Valiantly enter the battle to aid thy companions; or B) Honor thy post as guard?

B).  I was posted here for a reason and history is replete with examples of how doing things like that can lead to unexpected disasters as the battle changes.  (Honor).

A local bully pushes for a fight. Dost thou A) Valiantly trounce the rogue; or B) Decline, knowing in thy Spirit that no lasting good will come of it?

B).  Even if trouncing him might teach him a lesson — The CRPG Addict answered this question that way, but in my experience it doesn’t work that way anyway — I don’t like to fight at the best of times, so if I can avoid it I will.  (Spirituality).

Although a teacher of music, thou art a skillful wrestler. Thou hast been asked to fight in a local championship. Dost thou A) accept the invitation and Valiantly fight to win; or B) Humbly decline knowing thou art sure to win?

The CRPG Addict answered this one as well, and it’s a tricky question.  After all, what’s the harm in entering, even if you are sure to win against those locals that are competing?  But on considering it here, as a teacher of music I have no reason to win such a tournament, and if the prize is significant then it would be better to go to someone who wants to be a wrestler.  If we then consider the virtues themselves, to violate Humility I’d have to be doing it to win, and so Valor would be saying that I should take the opportunity to demonstrate my ability and Humility would be saying that it isn’t important to do that.  It wouldn’t be important to me to do that (even thought I do like to win games).  So I would never enter just to win and if that’s the only reason I had I wouldn’t do it.  So B).  (Humility).

During a pitched battle, thou dost see a fellow desert his post, endangering many. As he flees, he is set upon by several enemies. Dost thou A) Justly let him fight alone; or B) Risk Sacrificing thine own life to aid him?

Assuming that I can help him without causing issues for others who are standing and fighting, that someone flees in battle doesn’t mean that he deserves to die that way, since battle is frightening and he likely isn’t doing it do endanger people.  It seems to me that the better soldier there would help him anyway.  (Sacrifice).

Thou hast sworn to do thy Lord’s bidding in all. He covets a piece of land and orders the owner removed. Dost thou A) serve Justice, refusing to act, thus being disgraced; or B) Honor thine oath and unfairly evict the landowner?

A).  Again, such oaths aren’t worth keeping, and I don’t care all that much about what other people think of me and so don’t care about being disgraced for doing the right thing.  (Justice).

Thou dost believe that virtue resides in all people. Thou dost see a rogue steal from thy Lord. Dost thou A) call him to Justice; or B) personally try to sway him back to the Spiritual path of good?

A).  Nothing says that I can’t try to sway him back to good anyway, and if someone breaks the law letting him go because I want to try to convert him doesn’t seem right (and, interesting, the reason for that is that it seems to lack humility, as I think that I can do such things better than anyone else).  (Justice).

Unwitnessed, thou hast slain a great dragon in self defense. A poor warrior claims the offered reward. Dost thou A) Justly step forward to claim the reward; or B) Humbly go about life, secure in thy self-esteem?

Assuming that he isn’t just trying to scam them, I already noted that I would humbly go about life in a similar situation, so I’ll stick with B) here.  (Humility).

Thou art a bounty hunter sworn to return an alleged murderer. After his capture, thou believest him to be innocent. Dost thou A) Sacrifice thy sizeable bounty for thy belief; or B) Honor thy oath to return him as thou hast promised?

B).  I can stand up for him in court, but I need to have him get a trial anyway, which is also better for him than him remaining on the run because while I let him go, others won’t.  (Honor).

Thou hast spent thy life in charitable and righteous work. Thine uncle the innkeeper lies ill and asks you to take over his tavern. Dost thou A) Sacrifice thy life of purity to aid thy kin; or B) decline & follow thy Spirit’s call?

A).  Helping my kin when they need it and presumably I’m the only one who can is far more righteous than anything else I might do.  And this also ties into the idea of my helping my kin being something that I have a specific moral duty to do whereas charitable work and righteous work is one that I have no specific moral obligation to do.  (Sacrifice).

Thou art an elderly, wealthy eccentric. Thy end is near. Dost thou A) donate all thy wealth to feed hundreds of starving children, and receive public adulation; or B) Humbly live out thy life, willing thy fortune to thy heirs?

Well, I have the eccentric part down, but I’d have no interest in the adulation — one of the reasons I’m an eccentric is a growing disinterest in what people think of me — and I have specific duties to my heirs that I don’t have to those children, so this one is B).  (Humility).

In thy youth thou pledged to marry thy sweetheart. Now thou art on a sacred quest in distant lands. Thy sweetheart asks thee to keep thy vow. Dost thou A) Honor thy pledge to wed; or B) follow thy Spiritual crusade?

For this one I think it’s B), but only because I could marry her when the crusade is completed and unless she has a really strong reason to demand it now she’d be being a bit selfish to call that out.  This, of course, presumes that I can’t do both — marry her and then continue the crusade — and have to abandon the quest.  (Spirituality).

Thou art at a crossroads in thy life. Dost thou A) Choose the Honorable life of a Paladin, striving for Truth and Courage; or B) Choose the Humble life of a Shepherd, and a world of simplicity and peace?

The interesting thing here is that this question basically asks “What class do you want to be?”, as the class that aligns with Honor is the Paladin and the class that aligns with Humility is the Shepherd.  And despite the fact that I tend to play as Paladins in RPGs, I think that my past history and present tendencies say that I’d rather life as a Shepherd than as a Paladin.  I tend to have simple tastes and like a peaceful life.  (Humility).

Thy parents wish thee to become an apprentice. Two positions are available. Dost thou A) Become an acolyte in the Spiritual order; or B) Become an assistant to a humble village cobbler?

If I can choose, I’ll take the acolyte, as that fits my personality and interests better, which won’t surprise too many people here.  (Spirtuality).

So, let’s total it up (in order of which one I choose first in the list above).  There are 28 total questions:

Honesty:  6
Humility: 6
Compassion: 3
Justice: 3
Sacrifice: 4
Valor: 1
Honor: 2
Spirituality: 3

Honesty and Humility being high aren’t really a surprise, given that I don’t really care for attention and hold honesty in high regard (even if I, like everyone, am not perfect at being honest).  Valor being low isn’t a surprise either since I don’t care for confrontation (in fact, my biggest moments of weakness wrt Honesty are cases where it avoids confrontation).  Honor being low is a bit more of a surprise due to my Lawful nature, but again I hold to the spirit of the law and so that’s where it lost points.  Sacrifice holds because I’m non-materialistic and so will give up things without too much regret if it makes sense.  Compassion, Justice and Spirituality are right in the middle, which also applies.  I have at least one in every Virtue and Valor and Honor are relatively low but I have reasonable respect for everything else.  So it’s interesting.

And in game, my choice of class would have been between Mage and Shepherd.  I would have preferred Mage, but when the choice came down to those two I would have chosen Humility over Honesty and been a Shepherd.  The question where I chose against Humility was against Spirituality, so if the brackets worked out for me to choose anything else I would have ended up as a Ranger.  Neither of which are classes that I normally choose in RPGs, so I can’t decide if the questions would work out better or worse for me if I end up playing that game (it is, I think, on my list of games to play).

Bayesian Analysis a la Carrier: Carrier on Loveman

January 27, 2023

The big issue for Carrier’s analysis on Loveman is that he seems to jump to a number of conclusions that aren’t entirely supported by the paper itself.  For example, he says this:

So she focuses on that failing to pick up what is not being often-enough noticed or admitted: that much of this content does not support the conclusion that his liaisons were always or even typically consensual. He was essentially raping under-age servant girls and even family friends and the wives of clients, and on a more regular basis than his Diary records (as Loveman confirms by quoting Pepys’s own references to doing so).

But the paper itself only gives a couple of examples, which aren’t enough to suggest that his typical liaisons weren’t consensual.  I was willing to go along with the argument that he would commit rape, but the paper does not provide enough evidence to say cause us to doubt that the majority of his relations were indeed consensual, and the only references Loveman has, as far as I can tell, for any rapes is the diary itself (or similar works), and so are also things that his diary records.  So this seems unsupported and contrasts with how Loveman herself is far more careful in her comments than Carrier is (she, for example, doesn’t say that most of his conquests were non-consensual, but finds a couple of examples that were ignored and adds in more cases that today would certainly be problematic but weren’t then, like seducing servants).

And there’s also this:

Notably, it can be expected that Pepys never imagined any woman would read his Diary, given all the barriers he set (verbally, institutionally); he could not have expected its eventual publication, much less an actual woman being an actual historian actually getting into the archive at Magdalene College and actually reading it. It seems to me that Pepys expected “boys club” protection, whereby a select few men could secretly admire his “conquests,” while simultaneously never letting anyone know about them who might take less kindly to the information. Which entails he knew the men of his time quite well, as history proves out. The secret was well kept for centuries. What he could not anticipate was a rising equality, affecting both the prevalence of women at that level of study and the prevalence of men not admiring his treatment of women once learning of it.

Given what is said about Papys in the rest of the paper, this seems highly unlikely.  It’s certainly the case that he didn’t expect too many women — if any — to get access to the diary, if he was overly concerned about the impact it would have on his reputation he simply wouldn’t have included it.  Thus, it seems far more likely that he didn’t consider these things to be something embarrassing, which also then explains why people kept this “secret”.  After all, even in Loveman’s paper she notes that many historians not unreasonably see his use of polyglot — multiple languages — is less an attempt at secrecy and more an attempt at playfulness or adding sophistication, and so is more of a stylistic point to get greater interest and engagement with the diary rather than as an attempt to hide anything, even by making the events difficult to decipher.

And this ultimately undercuts Loveman’s thesis.  Carrier quotes Wikipedia saying this about the diary:

He recorded his daily life for almost ten years. This record of a decade of Pepys’s life is more than a million words long and is often regarded as Britain’s most celebrated diary. Pepys has been called the greatest diarist of all time due to his frankness in writing concerning his own weaknesses and the accuracy with which he records events of daily British life and major events in the 17th century.

Loveman’s thesis would call this into question, but given the use of polyglot as a playful technique and noting that other works at the time tended to treat sexual matters that way we have good reason to think that his doing that was more for propriety or style than secrecy, and these parts of the diary in and of themselves wouldn’t overcome any other parts where he was clearly being completely frank, or at least frank to a degree that we wouldn’t have expected.  Since Loveman doesn’t address any other examples, it may well be the case that when we take the entire diary into account we would see that if he had actually raped a woman or seduced an underage girl he would have simply said that, which would raise a serious challenge to Loveman’s thesis that he wasn’t being forthright about his sexual conquests.  And surely this is something that would have to be taken into account in a Bayesian analysis … but Carrier doesn’t consider it at all.

Another flaw here is that Carrier spends a lot of his post linking her paper to the discussions of mythicism versus historicism about Jesus, saying that her paper is an example of how to do it right and constantly linking what she says to what his opponents on those matters say and their motivations.  This is, of course, utterly irrelevant to both her paper and a Bayesian analysis of her paper, and so takes up a lot of space without saying anything.

So, finally, onto the analysis itself — other than comments about how great the paper is — which as usual is the shortest part of his posts:

I’d set posterior odds on it at thousands to one, at the lowest. Because even if the prior were even-steven (it’s not), and even if Loveman had only five examples as evidence (she has more), and even if each were 20% likely to exist on some other cause than she hypothesizes (it’s nowhere near), then if no common cause explains them all (and given their diversity and independence as events, it couldn’t), that’s 1/1 x 5/1 x 5/1 x 5/1 x 5/1 x 5/1 = 3125/1, over three thousand to one odds on her being right. The actual odds therefore must be even better. These are rough estimates to be sure, but they measure the unmistakable.

For someone who is doing this to show the proper use of Bayesian analysis to evaluate such papers, Carrier’s writing here is surprisingly unclear.  I originally thought that he meant that if each of her pieces of evidence only had a 20% chance of being correct, it’d still be extremely unlikely that she’d be wrong, and was going to reply that this only works if each piece of evidence was independent — so it couldn’t be the case that if one was refuted others would be refuted as well — and if it couldn’t be the case that refuting one of them would refute her entire thesis, which is probably not the case here.  However, on re-examination, it’s entirely possible that what he means is that the evidence is 20% likely on another theory (and thus 80% likely on hers), but all he’d be saying there is that since her theory is more likely on the evidence then we should consider it to be more likely on the evidence, which means that there is no reason to bother with doing the math at all.  If her theory is more likely on all the available evidence and so is the better explanation for all the evidence then we don’t need to invent a 20% versus 80% to calculate odds to determine that her theory is the better one.  Alternatively, he’s saying that even if another theory was 20% more likely on each piece of evidence we can do this math to still conclude that she’s almost certainly correct about this, but that doesn’t seem to make sense.  So for someone trying to advocate for Bayesian analysis, he’s not being at all clear in showing — and taking surprisingly little time to show — how it works out properly here.

But this also strikes at my biggest objection to at least Carrier’s approach to it, because his analysis ends up being strangely disconnected from the actual content.  Just look at what he does there.  He pulls that 20% number completely out of the air, calling it a “rough” estimate but he doesn’t list the evidence here individually and show step by step how it all works, but instead even notes that he’s supposedly downplaying how good her evidence was by using a smaller number of examples than he says she has and lower probabilities than he says she really has here.  The first complaint is the one I made about the last one:  if you are going to advocate for a system that relies on doing some more than basic mathematics on it you really need to do the math on it fully every single time, or else we have to wonder if doing the math is worth it.  The second complaint is that you can play all the mathematical games you want, but if that’s disconnected from the actual logical content of the argument it’s useless.  If someone could refute her claim logically — whether using her evidence or other evidence — all of his mathematical games would not avail him one bit.  So it looks like the biggest advantage of his method is to allow him to ignore what was actually said and instead abstract it all away to mathematical operations so no one will think too much about the actual content of the arguments.  And that’s not what an epistemology should really be doing.