Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

The Meaning of Life

May 13, 2022

Richard Carrier is going through the book “Unbelievable” by Justin Brierley, and one of his posts covered a chapter that talked about how Christianity can give people a meaning and purpose to life, when it doesn’t seem like atheism can do that.  This is, of course, a pretty common argument leveled against atheists, and most of them attempt to address it by saying that there is no actual objective meaning or purpose to life and so that’s something that every person has to determine for themselves.  In this manner, they deny that we have to be nihilistic and deny that there is any sort of purpose to our lives, but don’t have to provide any kind of objective grounding to this purpose or insist that everyone has to have the same purpose in life (although they tend to assume certain purposes are, at least, superior to other purposes).  And as I was taking in my walks, I was pondering it again — even though examining the meaning or purpose to life has never been a major philosophical interest for me — and I don’t think that the atheist approach will work, because a self-selected purpose cannot satisfy the reasons we’d need or want a purpose in the first place (which is also my objection to atheists who advocate for subjective moralities).

Let me start from the end … literally.  Imagine someone on their deathbed, looking back on their life to take its measure.  Now, with the standard idea of us having an objective purpose for living, what we’d expect them to do is compare how they’ve lived their life with regards to that purpose.  If they’ve managed to achieve it, they will feel satisfied that they managed to live according to that purpose.  If they’ve failed, then perhaps they will feel a sense of disappointment in themselves that they didn’t manage that, but they also might look back on their lives and note that they made a full effort, and as much of an effort as could possibly be expected of them, and it was only circumstances beyond their control that caused them to fail.  Regardless, all they are doing is looking at that set criteria and evaluating whether they managed to achieve that criteria or not.

This isn’t true for a self-selected purpose.  If someone on their deathbed looks back on their life given their self-selected purpose, they can’t simply evaluate their life based on how well they achieved that purpose.  If they managed to achieve that purpose, there will always be the nagging question of whether they only succeeded because they choose a purpose that was too easy to achieve, and that they should have chosen one that was more meaningful or more purposeful and shouldn’t have set their sights so low.  On the other hand, if they failed they have to ask if the issue was merely that they chose a purpose that was too difficult for them to achieve and so they should have chosen an easier one.  In all cases, they can’t simply evaluate their lives against that purpose, but always have to consider whether they chose the correct self-selected purpose, which since they have to believe that they chose the right original purpose before they can properly evaluate their lives wrt that purpose means that they are going to have to settle that first.  And as we’ve seen, unless we simply accept whatever it is we came up with, determining whether that purpose is correct or not is not easy to do.

As in death, so in life.  As we go about our lives, with a self-selected purpose we constantly have to ask ourselves if we’ve selected the right one.  If we stumble or encounter difficulties in achieving our purpose, it’s not simply a matter of doubling our efforts to achieve it, as we also have to ask whether that struggle is because we have the wrong one and need to choose a better purpose.  And if we are achieving it with ease, then we cannot congratulate ourselves on our achievement but instead have to ask if we have chosen a purpose that’s too easy for us to achieve.  So with every success and every setback we have to constantly examine and reassess our self-selected purpose to see if it still seems to be the correct one.

This isn’t what we wanted a purpose for.  We wanted a purpose to essentially be our lighthouse, to guide us through life with a light that we can trust to guide us properly if only we follow it properly.  Instead, our self-selected purpose ends up not being any kind of guide at all, or at least one that we don’t or at least shouldn’t trust.  If we don’t question this purpose to see if it is correct or reasonable when we know it is something that we chose (and could have chosen wrong), then what does having a purpose do for us?  We might as well simply just live our lives on the basis of our shallow and not-so-shallow impressions and not even think about any deeper purpose.

This is also what makes Richard Carrier’s normal approach of talking about how best to achieve our desires and wants problematic as well.  The purpose is supposed to determine what we want, not reflect it.  We are supposed to use it as the standard by which we evaluate what we want to determine if that’s what we should want or if we need to change our wants.  Carrier can try to argue that we should appeal to the deeper and “correct” wants in order to do that, but then we have to figure out what those are.  At some level, then, we always require having some sort of objective purpose and sense of value that we don’t select ourselves and so is more-or-less unchanging that we can use to evaluate our desires and, well, everything else in our lives.  We may not need God giving us that set purpose — even if we disagree with it — but we need something, and a self-selected purpose just isn’t going to work for that.

So we need an objective purpose and cannot just choose one for ourselves.  The only reason, I think, that atheists can get away with insisting we can is that they are running on the inertia of the objective purposes that we thought we had — in the same way as they can run with the objective moral ideas that they get from society while insisting that there are no such ideas — and so can even subconsciously take them as being set while insisting that they’ve “chosen” them, but this always runs into trouble when they try to justify it.  All they can do in response to such challenges is shrug and just go with what they have, but that is obviously a pretty weak response and is also a response that will not work if someone is a) struggling to find a purpose and wants to have one as “set” as theirs or b) is faced with them challenging their self-selected purpose on the grounds that the atheist’s purpose is better than theirs.  At this point, the idea of a self-selected purpose or meaning to life doesn’t seem to be doing what a purpose or meaning to life should be doing.

It can be objected — and often is — that what I’d be doing here is arguing for the existence of an objective purpose or meaning because I want there to be one, and it’s not the case that because I want something to exist that it has to.  I get that response from my comments on morality as well.  But as I mentioned above it’s not that I want to have such a purpose, but that a self-selected purpose or meaning to life cannot be used for any of the things we wanted that sort of thing for, so much so that it’s hard to imagine that a self-selected purpose could be a valid purpose or meaning to life.  At that point, it looks like the self-selected purpose they are talking about is something completely different that they happen to be using the same name for, and the only reason they don’t notice is because they’ve adopted as that purpose the old standard “objective” ones that we’ve had for centuries, and they don’t treat that purpose the way they really should treat a self-selected one.  They are using inertia and ideas that aren’t valid to make self-selected purposes seem like they can do what the ones that we at least believed objective did, but as we’ve seen they can’t.  So ultimately their self-selected purposes, at the end of the day, aren’t purposes at all.

So self-selecting our purpose won’t work.  Either we come up with something objective, or else we embrace nihilism.  But the attempt to embrace both worlds leaves us with a stated purpose that doesn’t work like purposes at all.

Mythicism: Carrier on McLatchie on Carrier

April 15, 2022

It’s possible that I should start paying more attention to the historicism vs mythicism debate, given that I’ve gotten sucked into talking about it a bit lately.  I have mused about picking up Carrier’s books on the topic and examining them in some detail, but I keep getting discouraged from that by the fact that I don’t really know enough about the topic to judge things very fairly and have no idea what some good and mostly neutral sources have to say about the topic.  I don’t know what some good introductory texts are on the matter, such as I’ve found in the past for things like philosophy (“Philosophies for Dummies”, at least the version I had, was actually pretty good).  What I can say is that from my reading of Richard Carrier’s posts on the topic his stuff is not a good introduction, and I’ve taken on Jonathan MS Pearce’s take on the Nativity and the Resurrection and don’t think they’re good introductions either.  However, I don’t just want to take on some of the people Carrier himself criticizes because it seems to me that Carrier is far more likely to take on works that criticize him the strongest, and that’s not what I’d need in an introduction.  Add in Gregory House’s admonition that “Everybody lies” and the issue I have is that I’d need as unbiased an account as I can, and as we shall see later the only people in this mess who could be unbiased are people like me who really don’t care about the topic … which isn’t much of an incentive for them to write about it.  If it wasn’t for the arguments that I’m coming across that are bad from a philosophical perspective, I wouldn’t really be involved here either, although I am gaining more interest in it for the simple reason that as I read more and more on the topic I’m finding mythicism increasingly untenable, and so am curious as to why people think it not only tenable, but actually plausible.

As you might have guessed, Carrier’s latest post defending mythicism against a criticism of his specific views by Jonathan McLatchie doesn’t break that mold.  Carrier’s defenses — especially in his blog posts — have always had a tendency to be more fire and flame than actual substance, as he aggressively attacks his opponents but in the process ends up missing the point of what they say.  I’ve noted in the past that if you are going to be aggressive you really have to be right, and at that point even minor errors hurt the credibility of a piece more than they would have otherwise.  If someone is careful about what they say and hedge their bets, if they make a minor mistake in interpretation we can let it go, but when they are ranting about how badly the other person misinterpreted their view even minor errors of interpretation on their part seem hypocritical … and Carrier tends to make more than minor errors of interpretation.  He is one of the people that most justifies my rule of “Make sure you read the original work when reading someone’s criticizes of it” (which is another reason why simply reading his stuff is more of an imposition than it might seem).

Anyway, after taking on someone that he didn’t think did any kind of credible job, Carrier turns to McLathchie as someone who is worth replying to.  But he starts with an odd interpretation of the overall debate:

That article’s subtitle alerts us to a trend I have seen in Christian apologetics as an industry since my second debate with Mike Licona: a readiness to strategically ditch the Gospels and extrabiblical sources and try to rest their case (even for the resurrection!) solely on the letters of Paul. That move was precipitated largely by having lost the debate over whether mainstream scholars “trust” the Gospels and other evidence (they don’t; and that looks bad for Christianity). The last rampart left to defend is the letters of Paul. Lose those, and you lose it all. So I totally understand why McLatchie needs to focus on that. And this is true even from a sound historical perspective: because the Gospels and extrabiblical evidence are deeply unreliable and thus unusable, the only place left to debate the historicity of Jesus, really, is in the letters of Paul. I’ve long pointed this out myself (e.g. see Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus).

So, McLatchie is replying to Carrier, and Carrier argues that the Gospels and extrabiblical sources are not at all reliable, and so would reject any appeals to the Gospels or extrabiblical sources, and so presumably is basing his case entirely or at least mostly on Paul and so clearly thinks that he can find enough evidence in Paul to demonstrate that mythicism is the most likely theory.  McLatchie, then, deciding to leave the Gospels out for the most part and concentrate on Paul isn’t a sign that he doesn’t think the Gospels credible, but is simply him responding to what the person he’s criticizing is actually arguing.  Sure, McLatchie could argue that the Gospels are reliable and prove historicism, but then since Carrier denies that the argument would be over that, and all of that is unnecessary if McLatchie can refute Carrier’s arguments based on Paul.  If those fall, then Carrier’s entire edifice falls.  So the shift is far more likely to be the result of mythicists insisting on ignoring the Gospels and focusing on Paul, and historicists following along with that because they think they can defeat those arguments and want to take mythicists on directly, keeping the Gospels in their back pocket if that fails.  McLatchie’s early paragraphs pretty much state this:

Carrier examines the extrabiblical evidence of Jesus’ historicity, as well as the sources we find in the New Testament – the gospels, Acts, and epistles. While there is much that could be discussed in regards to Carrier’s handling of these sources, for the purpose of the present paper I will focus primarily on Carrier’s interaction with the Pauline corpus, though – for reasons that will become clear – I will also remark on the book of Acts insofar as it helps to illuminate the proper interpretation of Paul’s letters.

Having rejected the gospels and Acts as reliable documents, Carrier maintains that the letters of Paul are the best sources that bear on the question of the historicity of Jesus. He, however, contends that the letters of Paul fail to unequivocally refer to Jesus as an historical person who walked on earth. Instead, argues Carrier, Paul viewed Jesus as a celestial being, inhabiting a spiritual realm in outer space, in which He was crucified by demons and subsequently resurrected. Carrier’s thesis is in fact not a new idea, but one which was originally proposed by Earl Doherty, to whom Carrier owes much of his material.[2]

So there’s no need to assert that his opponents are abandoning the Gospels when they focus on Paul in replying to them when any reasonable academic work replying to a specific position will, well, focus on that position, regardless of what they themselves think.  Carrier here wants to make a mostly irrelevant argument about how people are agreeing with him when, well, there’s no reason to think they are (McLatchie even uses Acts directly).  Which is a bit ironic given what Carrier says later.

But first, Carrier starts with a claim that McLatchie starts with an ad hominem, which is also going to be quite ironic:

To illustrate the difference between a competent rhetorist (McLatchie) and a hamfisted hack (Krause), consider this sentence from McLatchie’s first paragraph: “While Mythicism occupies only the fringes of the scholarly guild” (it actually has almost twenty public endorsements “from the guild” as being at least plausible, which is not looking all too fringe anymore), “it has gained much better traction on the internet, where poor scholarship can be widely disseminated unchecked.” In the very next sentence McLatchie admits I published my study not on the internet, but through a genuine peer reviewed “academic publisher” (he doesn’t mention my thesis has also been independently corroborated under peer review, by Raphael Lataster for Brill). But McLatchie’s wording makes it appear as though he has accused me of publishing “poor scholarship” (yet unlike the internet, academic publishers aren’t in the habit of doing that). So he gets the benefits of an ad hominem well poisoning fallacy while still retaining plausible deniability. He can fool inattentive readers into thinking he deployed such a fallacy (thus having all its intended psychological effect), while being able (unlike Krause) to deny he did any such thing. That’s not just dirty pool, it’s devious pool. Krause could learn a thing or two.

I wonder if the spur for that comment is more admiration and envy than actually finding it invalid.  Perhaps Carrier feels that it’s he, rather than Krause, who could learn a thing or two about such subtle ad hominems, as the ad hominem is so subtle that I didn’t even notice it on my first reading of McLatchie’s post, and on re-reading it don’t think it is one.  Here is what McLatchie said:

Richard Carrier is an ancient historian who has risen to prominence as the lead advocate of Jesus Mythicism, a school of thought that entertains the idea that Jesus of Nazareth may never have existed at all. While Mythicism occupies only the fringes of the scholarly guild, it has gained much better traction on the internet, where poor scholarship can be widely disseminated unchecked. In 2014, Richard Carrier published the first academic defense of Mythicism through Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd., an academic publisher.[1] Since this volume represents the first scholarly peer-reviewed publication supporting the Mythicist position and is written by an author with a doctoral degree in ancient history, the contents of Carrier’s thesis are deserving of attention.

So my interpretation of it is that mythicism is a fringe belief academically but has gained a lot of traction on the Internet where there are no requirements for good scholarship, but Richard Carrier has come along and created the first scholarly work for this — which is even peer-reviewed, as Carrier loves to mention — and so unlike the Internet works it’s worthy of some sort of scholarly attention.  I don’t see what’s so ad hominem about that.  Carrier claims that what McLatchie is doing is something akin to poisoning the well by associating it with poor scholarship while then “admitting” that Carrier’s work is not an Internet work, but it seems to me that the entire intent of the paragraph is to flat-out state that:  there’s a lot of stuff that’s not scholarly but Carrier’s is the exception, so it deserves attention.  Given that that’s the last thing in the paragraph and so the take-away of it, it’s not like McLatchie is trying to hide it in parentheses or anything.  It’s what that entire paragraph builds towards.  That’s hardly “admitting”.

As for why I think Carrier might be more admiring of the move and wishing he could do that himself, in his own introduction he says this:

Last week I addressed a lame Christian apologist’s travesty of an attempt to denounce and villify doubts that Jesus existed (On Paul Krause’s Objections to Jesus Mythicism). This week I will address a more competent attempt, by another Christian apologist, Jonathan McLatchie, for Frank Turek’s online ministry at CrossExamined.org: Did Jesus Exist? A Critical Appraisal of Richard Carrier’s Interpretation of the Pauline Corpus.

Structurally, this is pretty much the same thing:  I’ve looked at a bad example but here’s a better one that I’ll address.  By Carrier’s logic, this does the same thing as McLatchie does:  associate the view with incompetence and a lack of scholarly rigour and then “admit” that the view he’s going to look at is better, which then gets the audience associating the later work with that lack while having plausible deniability about whether they actually said that or not.  Of course, in this case I would consider that idea ridiculous and very flawed logic, and so conclude in spite of Carrier’s own application of that logic that Carrier is not engaging in any kind of ad hominem here, but is simply making a standard, boilerplate statement of why he is taking on McLatchie’s arguments, despite the fact that Carrier has stated that statements like that are disguised ad hominems.  Thus, I also consider McLatchie’s paragraph to be the same thing, and so if Carrier wants to argue that McLatchie’s intent is that then he will have to answer for his own intent in a paragraph that, again, pretty much says the same thing.

And then, of course. there’s the actual ad hominem that Carrier makes later:

When he gets to trying to make an actually relevant argument, what we get is a Christian apologist’s quasi-fundamentalist beliefs about the letters of Paul and the book of Acts (with one long section on each), rather than any position one can honestly defend with evidence. This is why Lataster is fond of pointing out that Christians have no business even engaging in this debate. They cannot approach it honestly. Their very salvation is at stake. Whereas atheists are under no threat admitting Jesus was yet another mythologized guru. Hence whether Jesus existed or not is really only a debate that can be honestly and productively held between non-Christians. We’ll see why as we survey this effort.

So, no Christian is able to examine the arguments in any way honestly, and so they should be excluded from the debate entirely.  Only atheists should be allowed to engage in this topic, as all Christians will automatically be dishonest about it and so such discussions won’t be productive.  Thus, we can pretty much ignore any arguments from Christians, right?  Even the ones that are, of course, correct.  Call me crazy, but I think that people can indeed at a minimum critically examine arguments of the position they disagree with even if they strongly hold that view, and then opponents can point out — as Carrier does in this entire post — the arguments that don’t work and the arguments or counters that only work because of their bias.  In addition, it’s actually not clear that atheists like Carrier and Pearce are properly unbiased either.  Carrier takes on a comment asking why secular commentators who favour historicism don’t take up the challenge that often:

So far, everyone competent I would suggest, doesn’t really care whether Jesus existed enough to spend time defending it. Only scholars who desperately need Jesus to exist have the motivation. For example, I don’t know their religious commitments, but Mark Goodacre and James Crossley would do the subject justice. But they are buried in other years-long projects of their own interest, and have somewhat indicated they are unlikely to spend any time on this question.

I suspect they really don’t care whether Jesus existed or not enough to want to devote the time it would take to properly treat it (precisely because they know that requires serious commitment to do properly; it can’t be knocked off from the armchair).

Precisely.  The more interesting position historically is that Jesus was a real person who was mythologized, and that’s already the default.  Mythicism isn’t that interesting historically so those who don’t care about the topic either way have no real reason to do the work to engage with it.  So, then, what can we say about those secular scholars who do care deeply about it, like Carrier for certain?  Well, they have some sort of reason to care about it beyond wanting to come to the right conclusion, because those other secular scholars would have that same motivation.  Thus, they have a motivation above and beyond simple scholarly honesty.  And could that reason be that if they could demonstrate that Jesus didn’t really exist then they have a really strong argument to use against Christians?  Pretty much all of the examples of those who strongly advocate for mythicism are anti-theists and not merely atheists:  they don’t merely not believe that God exists, but spend a lot of time trying to argue against theists and Christians who say he does, often in very strong terms, and most would like to see Christianity and religion gone from the world.  Yeah, it’s perfectly reasonable to claim that those atheists are equally biased and so are equally untrustworthy,  The only unbiased commentators are literally those who don’t care about the topic, and the closest thing I can see to that in the debate is, well, myself … and I admit that I don’t know enough to comment on it fairly, in large part because I don’t care.  So, no, Carrier does not get to smear Christians for having biases when his side seems to have them as well.  What we could do is evaluate the arguments and do scholarly examinations of them, stating our biases and trying to work to moderate them, and using things like the peer review process that Carrier is so enamored of to help catch these sorts of things like we are expected to do for all scholarly and academic work.  Instead, Carrier wants to remove all possible opposition to his claims beforehand so that the only people who could possibly oppose him are people who don’t care to oppose him.

Moving on from ad hominems, we get into an argument about consensus based on an aside from McLatchie.  Carrier says:

Similarly, McLatchie goes on to construct a similarly devious (and disingenuous) analogy between the historicity of Jesus and the science of evolution–without hamfistedly saying there is as much evidence for Jesus as for evolution. Instead, he glides right over all the pertinent differences between history and biology as scientific fields, and the historicity of Jesus (a specific, poorly attested, largely unnecessary event) and evolution as a subject of knowledge (a general, vastly attested, manifest process)—and hopes his readers don’t notice or know any of that. Pro tip: there is nowhere near the evidence for Jesus as there is for evolution, and no one thinks a consensus in history is as reliable and undoubtable as a consensus in any hard science like biology.

So you can’t claim every challenge to a consensus is to be dismissed. To the contrary, if it passes peer review, it’s time to take that challenge seriously (that’s what peer review is for: see On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus).

Of course, McLatchie actually said that last part directly in the paragraph Carrier is talking about (but doesn’t quote):

I cannot help but point out an irony in Carrier’s advocacy of scholarship that to call fringe would be an understatement. In one of Carrier’s other books, Why I Am Not a Christian, Carrier writes concerning biological evolution, “The evidence that all present life evolved by a process of natural selection is strong and extensive. I won’t repeat the case here, for it is enough to point out that the scientific consensus on this is vast and certain, so if you deny it you’re only kicking against the goad of your own ignorance.”[3] One wonders whether this quote has any relevance to the debate over Mythicism. I could forego interaction with Carrier’s argumentation by noting that “the evidence that Jesus existed is strong and extensive. I won’t repeat the case here, for it is enough to point out that the scholarly consensus on this is vast and certain, so if you deny it you’re only kicking against the goad of your own ignorance.” Presumably, Carrier would – quite rightly – object that I need to interact with his arguments rather than simply make an appeal to scholarly consensus. This is somewhat of an inconsistency on Carrier’s part.

The paragraph is an aside, where McLatchie points out that by Carrier’s own logic McLatchie would be well within his rights to say that the scholarly consensus is clear and that any attempt to oppose that is just out of ignorance.  As McLatchie notes, presumably Carrier would think that he needs to address Carrier’s arguments instead of just dismissing them, and yet that is exactly what Carrier insists he doesn’t need to do for evolution.  Yes, the evidence and case for evolution is stronger, but if someone was indeed leveling new arguments against evolution dismissing them outright on the basis of “the consensus is clear” is just as bad (arguing that they aren’t new would actually be fair).  If Carrier’s original statement was more “The case for evolution is strong and it’s not the purpose of this work to restate that”, then this would be any kind of inconsistency, but since he aggressively says that any such arguments must be wrong without engaging in them due to the consensus then he is open to that charge, which is again a charge that McLatchie doesn’t care that much about.  And if Carrier wasn’t taking this as a huge sign of dishonesty the fact that McLatchie’s conclusion, again, is the very thing Carrier cites here wouldn’t be that big a deal either.

And it gets worse:

Ironically, McLatchie goes on in a later section to admit (quoting me) that “there is a great deal wrong with how a ‘consensus’ has been reached” on practically everything in Biblical studies. So…um, McLatchie believes it is acceptable to reject numerous mainstream consensuses in the field, and at the same time it is not acceptable only in this one specific isolated question. For…reasons? He never explains himself on this point. He readily knows consensuses in biblical studies are unreliable and often open to challenge—he just won’t admit it in this paragraph, lest it destroy the rhetorical game he is trying to play on his readers (“But, the consensus!”). Instead he only brings up his admission that he actually agrees with me that it is quite plausible to challenge a consensus in this field paragraphs later, hoping his readers don’t hear a record scratch to a halt in their heads, realizing McLatchie just contradicted himself—in the act of falsely claiming I have contradicted myself. Kafka would be proud.

The first problem with this is that Carrier, as he so often does, is using a rather vague notion of “later”, because McLatchie actually says that … two paragraphs later, where the paragraph in-between is this:

In this paper, I will be primarily interacting with Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus. However, I may on occasion also draw from other publications by Carrier, including his blog posts, which might serve to illuminate his views or where he may have anticipated some of the objections I raise here.

In general, the accusation of doing that later is that you set it up so that they would have forgotten about the previous statement when the later one comes up, which is what Carrier’s argument is here.  But two paragraphs later isn’t, in general, long enough for that to happen, and Carrier can only avoid a charge of misrepresentation here on the basis that two paragraphs later is technically later.  On top of that, McLatchie actually notes that it’s okay to challenge consensuses in that very paragraph, as we’ve already seen, so it’s not like he’s even trying to hide the principle from the audience.  So what we’ve seen so far is an attempt by Carrier to claim McLatchie dishonest for these tricks that, well, aren’t really tricks at all.  Which is even more ironic given what Carrier follows up with:

None of McLatchie’s opening paragraphs serve any legitimate purpose, other than emotional and rhetorical manipulation of his audience.

Which means that it’s really important that Carrier spend five paragraphs talking about these things that have no legitimate purpose, right?  Putting aside the argument over whether they even actually do that, the opening paragraphs seems to me to be standard boilerplate:  saying what mythicism is, who he’s talking about, what he’s going to talk about, and why Carrier is worth talking about, with a minor aside on how Carrier might be willing to ignore the consensus when it suits him while insisting on following it when doing that benefits him (which is a paragraph that didn’t need to be there, true).  Carrier spends five paragraphs talking about four paragraphs, that seem to do little more than let Carrier make ad hominems while trying to defend himself from what he perceives as being ad hominems.  I think we all should be happy to move on to relevant stuff now (although Carrier will take another three paragraphs talking about how Christians can’t be trusted as seen above and about how we really can only trust Paul’s pastorals, which McLatchie was going to focus on anyway, so so much for getting to things that are relevant).

And, of course, he continues to bash apologists without getting to the meat of the arguments in the next section:

Serious debate over the historicity of Jesus really does always come down to what we understand Paul to have meant when he wrote certain things in his letters. And answering that question requires adducing all the pertinent evidence in Paul that informs us as to either what he did mean, or what he could as likely have meant as anything else—and then seeing where that evidence leaves us. This is how historians operate. Apologists operate backwards: they assume all the later mythologies (never referenced by Paul and by many indications quite unknown to Paul) are “true” and therefore we can “interpret” what Paul said by reference to those later myths. This is a circular argument. You cannot assume “Paul meant what’s in the Gospels” in order argue “Paul meant what’s in the Gospels.” Alas. But this is all McLatchie does, really.

Remember, though, that Paul was indeed aware of Christianity at the time and tried to roughly align himself with them — he did not want to contradict himself and be declared outside of the Church — and so if we have sources that describe what early Christians thought independently of him then we can use them to interpret what he might have meant, especially when he talks about what they meant.  By the same reasoning, we cannot claim that “Paul said that early Christians believed this” to argue that “Paul said that early Christians believed this”.  We would need to establish what Paul himself clearly meant and then make an argument that from that we can be certain that the early Christians meant that as well and that wasn’t one of Paul’s deviations.  Conversely, if the Gospels really did reflect what early Christians believed then even if Paul hadn’t had access to them we could interpret what Paul meant by noting that he needs to be at least broadly consistent with them even though he deviates at times.  However, it’s relevant to note that in this debate the only reason we care about what Paul really meant is because we are trying to find out what early Christians believed.  So if we have good extra-Paul sources for what the early Christians believed then what Paul thought or said isn’t all that important.  It’s only because it is at least claims that we don’t have those sources that we care so much about what Paul said.  Which puts Carrier’s comments about shifting away from the Gospels towards Paul in perspective:  it’s as important if not more so to Carrier that the Gospels be ignored, likely because it’s not as easy for Carrier to make his case taking the Gospels into account as it is if he can ignore them and focus only on Paul, probably because the Gospels all pretty much claim Jesus was a real person and it would take a lot more creative interpretations to make them fit the mythicist model.  Carrier may indeed be right that they aren’t reliable enough to be trusted but that is countered by the fact that they are more directly linked to what early Christians really thought as they are almost certainly derived from what at least certain sects of Christianity that can be traced back to its origin really believed.  So we have issues no matter how we proceed.

But then Carrier says something that from any kind of epistemic view is incredibly odd, and also explains my reaction to his and Pearce’s view, and to atheist anti-theism in general:

To be fair, McLatchie admits “Paul’s reference to Jesus’ teachings on divorce or to the twelve…can be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with” my thesis. So he isn’t just hell bent on gainsaying everything I say. He understands the concept that, for example, Paul referring to their being a “twelve” is equally likely whether Jesus existed or not—without having to insist or prove Paul did not mean what historicists need him to. This is a crucial methodological point. Apologists tend to have a hard time distinguishing between, for example, “we know the Gospels are all myth” and “we don’t know the Gospels aren’t all myth.” All I have to prove is the latter—not the former.

Wait.  So, the consensus is that Jesus was a real person who was mythogized, and we have sources that claim this, and Carrier is saying that he doesn’t have to prove that Paul didn’t mean what historicists need him to to challenge those sources, nor does he have to prove that the Gospels really are myths and don’t contain historical information about a real person?  I mean, a lot of atheists have made hay over strong notions of proof and so denying that they have that burden, but surely to overturn a consensus you are going to have to get to something stronger than “Well, we don’t know that I’m wrong”.  Surely you’d need to get to “I know that I’m right that Paul was referring to a Jesus that was not a real person”, which then at least would get to the implication that any reference in the Gospels to a real Jesus was indeed false and so all of those descriptions were myths.  Carrier states this even more strongly later (yes, a paragraph later):

Hence, so too, anything in Paul. I do not need to prove Paul did mean by “the archons of this aeon” demonic powers; all I need prove is that we cannot know he didn’t. Even at best, for the historicist, the evidence we have is equally likely on whether Paul did or didn’t. So it supports neither theory against the other. It’s simply unusable as evidence. It’s actually worse for the historicist’s interpretation—this wording is actually not likely what Paul would have written if he meant human authorities—as I outline in On the Historicity of Jesus (e.g. pp. 565-66). But my point here is that it doesn’t have to be for my conclusion to follow. In other words, we simply can’t use an ambiguous sentence to prove historicity, when it just as likely can have been the same sentence Paul would write if he only understood the saga of Jesus to be a celestial event and not an Earthly one. In this one moment McLatchie reveals he at least understands this point in principle. Yet we’ll see him conveniently forget about it whenever he needs to.

Well, okay, sure, if the historicist is saying that this sentence proves that Jesus was real and the mythicist can point out that it is consistent with their position as well, that would mean that it can’t at least be used as strong evidence in favour of historicism, but as Carrier himself notes here that’s not what’s happening, and it’s the mythicist who is arguing that this is evidence in favour of mysticism.  At some point, the mythicist is either going to have to find an argument that they claim means they know that Paul was not referring to a real person or else the culmulative case will have to add up to a knowledge claim.  So Carrier cannot simply say “Well, we don’t know that Paul didn’t mean this” if he wants us to take his claims seriously and wants to overturn a consensus.  Eventually, he is going to have to get to a point where, yes, we can say that we do know that Paul meant that, even if that case is ambiguous until he makes the rest of his case.

This attitude, I think, is what is bugging me about mythicism specifically and anti-theistic arguments in general.  Their main focus is always on raising doubts and dodging the burden of proof, pushing it on to their opponents.  But I see no reason to give up any belief because some doubts can be raised.  I can concede that it may not be irrational for mythicists or strong atheists to hold their positions without feeling any pressure to join them in their position.  The arguments, in general, are simply not strong enough to do anything but raise some doubts, and that’s not enough.  Add in that a lot of the arguments are about irrelevant and minor things and things get even worse.  Neither position, it seems to me, has the one knockdown argument that shows that we know God doesn’t exist — see my examinations of Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets that are supposed to do that and fail — but in trying to make a cumulative case they include too many minor and wrong arguments to make that work either.  Every time they include something that doesn’t work or isn’t important it makes the argument seem desperate rather than considered, especially when they treat those minor and incorrect things as things that we are supposed to find critically important.  And so I am unimpressed by them because the arguments are unimpressive and the proponents spend as much time trying to force me to prove my case as they do for promoting their own, and the only way to insist that I take their view is to get to the level of knowledge, and demanding that I prove it to them is always an implicit acknowledgement that they can’t get there.  And if they can’t get there, why should I care about their position?

Anyway, moving on, Carrier commends McLatchie for stating his position properly and then tries to argue that he didn’t:

But then he straw man’s my conclusion by declaring “Carrier’s proposed interpretation of Romans 1:3 is that God manufactured Jesus out of sperm that was obtained from David’s belly, an event that Carrier suggests took place in outer space.” Actually, the following is what I said in the book McLatchie is supposed to be responding to: “An allegorical meaning is possible. But so is a literal one,” and then in a note I explain “in Gal. 3.26–4.29 every Christian comes from ‘the sperm of Abraham’ by spiritual adoption” and so “Jesus could have been understood to come from ‘the sperm of David’ in a similar way.” In fact “Paul even uses the same phrase in his discussion of allegorical heritage here (kata sarka, ‘according to the flesh’, Gal. 4.23, 29) that he uses of Jesus in Rom. 1.3″ (p. 575). So, I did not actually say the only likely thing Paul could mean here is a literal manufacture of Jesus from the sperm of David; I pointed out the text is entirely compatible with an allegorical meaning: the exact same one Paul uses elsewhere, with identical vocabulary. McLatchie never mentions this; nor ever addresses it.

I then go on to explain why a literal reading of the text—divine manufacture—is actually simpler and makes even more sense.

So, McLatchie claimed that Carrier thinks that the way to interpret that statement is to refer to divine manufacture.  Carrier then claims that McLatchie is creating a strawman by saying that Carrier proposes interpreting the statement that way, by arguing that in his sentence he suggests that an allegorical meaning might be valid, that he expands on in a note, and then concludes that after that he goes on to argue that divine manufacture is the simpler and makes more sense.  Well, first, McLatchie can be forgiven for not putting too much emphasis on the note because in arguments notes are not meant to be taken as arguments.  In general, in philosophical works I ignore the notes because those are meant to be clarifications, not arguments, and one should be able to read a philosophical text and understand it without reading the notes.  So notes, in general, are interesting but not crucial asides that can help clarify matters, which is why I do read them in historical works, not because they are important, because they are interesting.  If Carrier wanted us to think that he actually take the allegorical argument seriously, he needed to put it in the text and not in a note.  Additionally, after talking about how it might work allegorically Carrier himself notes that he spends much more time right after that talking about how the preferred interpretation should be divine manufacture.  Given this, it’s perfectly reasonable for McLatchie to conclude that that’s how Carrier thinks it should be interpreted, and so that doesn’t seem like any kind of a strawman.  Ironically, if McLatchie had insisted that Carrier takes it as being analogical that would be a strawman, given what Carrier says.  But saying that Carrier thinks what Carrier admits that he spends time arguing for and that it seems he really thinks isn’t any kind of strawman.

I am at a complete loss for why Carrier would do this.  While I dislike trying to psychologically analyze people, I can only conclude that McLatchie stating the position so baldly struck Carrier as being totally bizarre, and so he wanted to find a way to distance himself from the position, but I cannot understand why he didn’t just say “I know this sounds insane, but this is what the early Christians believed!” instead of spending so much time trying to deny that he said it only to affirm that, yeah, that is what he meant.  And he even goes on to argue that just a short while later.  So why spend the time here trying to argue that what he really does seem to mean isn’t what he meant?

This is part of a long section where Carrier claims that McLatchie didn’t respond to any of Carrier’s real arguments and hides that from the audience, while ignoring most of what McLatchie actually said, which isn’t any better.  The argument is over whether Paul uses a certain verb to mean “born” or “manufactured”.  Carrier quotes McLatchie saying this:

Carrier has in mind here the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:7, in which the word ἐγένετο (the aorist indicative form of γίνομαι) appears, describing the man as becoming a living creature. However, the word that is used here to describe the moment of divine manufacture is not ἐγένετο, but rather ἔπλασεν (the third person aorist indicative of the verb πλάσσω). The word ἐγένετο, rather, is used in this context to describe the change of state from non-living to living. Thus, it is not precisely correct to say that ἐγένετο refers to divine manufacture.

Which he replies to by saying that the quote in his book is actually this:

Philippians 2.6-11 portrays this fact as an act of divine construction, not human procreation (as noted in §4): Jesus ‘took’ human form, was ‘made’ to look like a man and then ‘found’ to be resembling one (see also Heb. 2.17). No mention of birth, childhood or parents. In Rom. 1.3 (just as in Gal. 4.4) Paul uses the word genomenos (from ginomai), meaning ‘to happen, become’. Paul never uses that word of a human birth, despite using it hundreds of times (typically to mean ‘being’ or ‘becoming’); rather, his preferred word for being born is gennaō. Notably, in 1 Cor. 15.45, Paul says Adam ‘was made’, using the same word as he uses for Jesus; yet this is obviously not a reference to being born but to being constructed directly by God. If so for Adam, then so it could be for Jesus (whom Paul equated with Adam in that same verse). Likewise in 1 Cor. 15.37 Paul uses the same word of our future resurrection body, which of course is not born from a parent but directly manufactured by God (and already waiting for us in heaven: 2 Cor. 5.1-5). Thus, Paul could be saying the same of Jesus’ incarnation. (OHJ, pp. 575-76)

(The emphasis is all Carrier’s).

But McLatchie’s remaining paragraphs in the section are as follows:

Carrier has in mind here the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:7, in which the word ἐγένετο (the aorist indicative form of γίνομαι) appears, describing the man as becoming a living creature. However, the word that is used here to describe the moment of divine manufacture is not ἐγένετο, but rather ἔπλασεν (the third person aorist indicative of the verb πλάσσω). The word ἐγένετο, rather, is used in this context to describe the change of state from non-living to living. Thus, it is not precisely correct to say that ἐγένετο refers to divine manufacture. Paul himself in fact alludes to this text (1 Cor 15:45). While Carrier asserts that Paul does not use γίνομαι to refer to a human birth, this only begs the question, since he must assume that Romans 1:3 and also Galatians 4:4 (which says that Jesus was born – γενόμενον – of a woman and born under the law) are not using the verb in this sense, which is the very question he is attempting to address. Furthermore, according to Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Greek Lexicon, the verb γίνομαι, in the context of persons, means “to be born.”[6] We can independently verify this to be the case by analysing instances where this verb is used in the Septuagint, in order to discern how the word is used in relation to persons. Genesis 21:3 says, “Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.” In the Greek Septuagint, the Hebrew word נּֽוֹלַד־ (“was born”) is translated γενομένου. Another example is Genesis 46:27: “And the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two.” Again, the Greek Septuagint renders this as γενομένου. Finally, consider Genesis 48:5: “And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.” Here once again, the Greek Septuagint uses the word γενομένου.

Carrier points out that Paul also uses another verb, γεννάω, to refer to being born. One instance is Romans 9:11: “though they were not yet born (γεννηθέντων) and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” The other instance is Galatians 4:23,29: “But the son of the slave was born (γεγέννηται) according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise… But just as at that time he who was born (γεννηθεὶς) according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” While it may be granted that Paul uses the verb γεννάω to refer to being born, this entails nothing more than that Paul was willing to use synonyms for a word.

Another relevant question is how Paul himself uses the word σπέρματος (usually translated as “seed” or “offspring”) elsewhere. Paul writes, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant (σπέρματος) of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin,” (Rom 11:1). Here, Paul uses the exact same word for descendant as he used in Romans 1:3 to describe Jesus as being a descendent of David. If Paul – as he presumably did – believed that his descendance from Abraham entailed that he himself existed on earth, then it stands to reason that he also believed that Jesus existed on earth by virtue of His descendance from David.

While there’s too much here to completely unpack and it’s clear that McLatchie leaves out some of the arguments, what is happening here is that McLatchie actually is addressing the idea that because Paul used the same word there that refers to Adam that doesn’t mean that he really did mean that Jesus was divinely manufactured instead of being born.  It’s all about the consistency of how Paul uses words, and I don’t see that Carrier’s argument is necessarily more reasonable than McLatchie’s (one could argue that that’s because I don’t really understand the context, which is a fair comment).  But to return to Carrier’s objection, Carrier makes it seems like McLatchie doesn’t reply to it on the basis that he says nothing about the debate, which is clearly false, and Carrier completely leaves out the arguments that McLatchie does make, while trying to make an argument that McLatchie dishonestly leaves out the arguments and information in order to misrepresent the argument.  If that really is true, then is Carrier doing anything any different?  And note that if Carrier cannot pull off the argument that Paul does not use the word to refer to actual live births then his entire argument here fails, and we have no reason to think that this argument in any way supports mythicism, and surely can fall back on the consensus and the Gospels that claim that Jesus was a real person and not historical, and Carrier, again, does not in any way address arguments that show that Carrier does not pull that off and that Paul is referring to a real person is still a live option.

Carrier also addresses an issue with McLatchie’s last statement:

To wrap up my analysis of this text, I will note that it is very clear from the dead sea scrolls that there was an expectation of a Davidic Messiah, and, moreover, this is likewise very evident from the Hebrew Bible as well. Therefore, the interpretation that Paul intends to express that Christ was born of the line of David is much more plausible than Carrier’s thesis that it refers to divine manufacture.

Carrier accuses him of ignoring this paragraph:

Scripture said the prophet Nathan was instructed by God to tell King David (here following the Septuagint translation, although the Hebrew does not substantially differ):

‘When your days are done, and you sleep with your fathers, I will raise up your sperm after you, which shall come from your belly, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build for me a house in my name, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son’ (2 Samuel 7.12-14a).

If this passage were read like a pesher (Element 8), one could easily conclude that God was saying he extracted semen from David and held it in reserve until the time he would make good this promise of David’s progeny sitting on an eternalthrone. For otherwise God’s promise was broken: the throne of David’s progeny was noteternal (Element 23). Moreover, the original poetic intent was certainly to speak of an unending royal line (and not just biologically, but politically: it is the thronethat would be eternal, yet history proves it was not); yet God can be read to say here that he would raise up a single sonfor David who will rule eternally, rather than a royal line, and that ‘his’ will be the kingdom God establishes, and ‘he’ will build God’s house (the Christian church: Element 18), and thus hewill be the one to sit upon a throne forever—and this man will be the Son of God. In other words, Jesus Christ (the same kind of inference Paul makes in Gal. 3.13–4.29, where he infers Jesus is also the ‘seed of Abraham’ also spoken of in scripture). (OHJ, p. 576)

Or, well, it could also be interpreted as it seems to be the Gospels:  God would restore someone from the line of David to an eternal throne.  This doesn’t seem to be as clear as Carrier seems to think, given that one obvious problem here is that Carrier seems to be saying that the line was broken politically which means it can’t be valid, but the quote explicitly says that it will be broken politically so that it can be raised again.  Moreover, if that kingdom is to be the Christian church then it being a political kingdom is clearly false.  And if God was taking the seed from David’s belly that was somehow preserved how does that relate to that person being the Son of God?  In all honesty, right now having Jesus in the line of David through Joseph but born of God’s implantation is probably the best way to make sense of Jesus being of David’s line but also the Son of God, unless we go full-on allegorical which is not what Carrier is doing here, at least.  This is another issue I have with these arguments, as I wasn’t really wanting to analyze this but as I read it to make sure it was the right quote I kept finding more and more things that didn’t really make sense and seem wrong.  The more and closer I read these things the less compelling and interesting I find that.  That has to be a flaw.

Anyway, my use of this is just a set-up to talk about this line:

So what sounds “much more plausible” to you now? Right. That thing you are feeling? That’s the feeling of gaining access to information McLatchie concealed from you. Apologetics generally operates by excluding evidence. And here you see that directly at work. Once you assemble all the pertinent information, it becomes clear that we cannot tell which thing Paul is thinking of here when he wrote this verse.

It’s one thing to be condescending to your opponents, but quite another to be condescending to your audience.  Telling your audience what they’re feeling is the province of terrible DMs, not of someone making a serious argument.  And it especially falls flat if they aren’t feeling that.  And that’s especially bad since an argument here might make people conclude that, but is unlikely to make them feel that.  Maybe they’ll agree.  Given Carrier’s approach, it’s very likely that many won’t.  And if they don’t, you look arrogant and condescending, not as someone whose arguments should be taken seriously.  Again, Carrier’s aggressive approach works against him, not for him.  All he needed to say was that McLatchie ignored these arguments, not imply that he was dishonestly doing so.

Especially since that’s pretty much the purpose of those paragraphs:

won’t go into as much detail for the rest of McLatchie’s article. The point of doing so above is to show you how McLatchie’s dishonest rhetoric operates, how by omitting key information and engaging in sleight of hand he makes you think he has rebutted my argument, when in fact he hasn’t even addressed it. And you won’t know that if you haven’t read my book, or don’t pick it up again and try to follow McLatchie’s purported answer to it, and then notice what he is leaving out and not answering. Which more than soundly illustrates the fact that you can’t trust his critique—you simply have to go and read On the Historicity of Jesus for yourself. (Or Jesus from Outer Space if you want to start with a quick summary; it has in back a concordance to the corresponding sections in OHJ if you want to dive further into the debate and sources.)

Anyway, moving on, I want to skip the first part of the “born of a woman” argument and focus on the ending, because Carrier seems to not get what it was aiming at and on thinking about it I think it might be more damning than it seems:

McLatchie closes this section by saying “if Carrier’s theory about Galatians 4:4 is correct, then the allegorical interpretation makes sense only if we translate γενόμενον as ‘born’ rather than ‘manufactured’.” Hmmm. Are we to believe McLatchie somehow didn’t read the following in the book he claims to be answering? I wrote, “It’s obvious to me that by ‘born of a woman, born under the law’ Paul means no more than that Jesus was, by being incarnated, placed under the sway of the old covenant, so that he could die to it (and rise free, as shall we). So the ‘woman’ here is simply the old covenant, not an actual person. Paul does not mean a biological birth to Mary or any other Jewess.” (OHJ, p. 579) So, explain to us again, dear McLatchie, how my take on this “makes sense only if we translate γενόμενον as ‘born’ rather than ‘manufactured’.” Oh right. That’s not even a remotely honest description of my position. That’s what makes what McLatchie is doing here apologetics, not honest history.

But McLatchie’s full argument is this:

But there is an even more damning objection to Carrier’s thesis here. That is, if Carrier’s theory about Galatians 4:4 is correct, then the allegorical interpretation makes sense only if we translate γενόμενον as “born” rather than “manufactured”. Therefore, if Carrier is correct here in his interpretation, he has himself refuted his own response to Romans 1:3, discussed above, that γενόμενον should not be used to refer to being born.

So the point is this:  earlier, Carrier says that Paul is consistent in using a particular word to refer to being born, and yet in that section he doesn’t use that word but instead uses another one, and that that other one is also used to refer to Adam, and so thus is used to refer to divine manufacture.  Yet in this case Paul uses that same word, and Carrier says that it’s making reference to another case as an allegory, but McLatchie notes that that references is clearly a reference to being born, not divinely manufactured, and so if Paul only used that word to refer to divine manufacture then it would be the wrong word to use here to make the allegory work.  Now, at first I thought this was just a minor issue and Carrier might be able to escape this charge, but in thinking about it on my walks I noted that he can’t really do that.

Here’s why.  If Carrier argues that Paul simply used the terms in different senses in the two cases, then that invalidates his argument that Paul was always careful to use the one word for “born” and to not use this word to mean “born”, because he clearly used it in that sense here.  Paul was clearly more loose in his uses of words than Carrier needs to make a case for the first case really meaning “divine manufacture”.  So he’d need to insist that Paul really is using it in the same sense and so doesn’t vary in his usages in the same case.  But if Carrier takes that sense as being “born” then he invalidates the argument for divine manufacture and so Paul might easily have meant that Jesus was a real person in the first argument, wiping it out completely.  So he won’t want to do that.  So he has to insist that it means “divine manufacture” in the second case as well, which doesn’t align with the analogy and Carrier gives no reason to think that Paul wouldn’t have used the other word for born there.  This, then, is an inconsistency that Carrier needs to resolve, that he doesn’t resolve with his comments that the born there does not have to mean literally born.  The word “born” fits better here even if Jesus was just incarnated, and Carrier has insisted that Paul never uses the word to mean that.

He then goes on to talk about “brothers of the Lord”, and actually hits on one argument that I myself found odd that McLatchie would make:

Here McLatchie writes “Carrier observes that ‘Paul can use the phrase ‘brother of the Lord’ to mean Christian, since all Christians were brothers of the Lord’.” He cites the wrong page number for this in his appended footnote (my discussion of this is in pages 582-92; not on page 669). He also omits mention of the fact that I go on to explain there that only baptized Christians were considered Brothers of the Lord. But these errors don’t affect his apologetic. Because his only response is the rather self-defeating assertion that “this argument is problematic since it seems unlikely that Paul is implying—as would be required on Carrier’s interpretation—that he saw no other Christian, or even no-one of importance, in Jerusalem besides Peter and James.” Not only is that exactly what Paul is saying, he explicitly says that in the very next paragraph: “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report” of me. So look what has happened here. McLatchie wants to cast doubt on the idea that Paul meant he met no one at all but these two men on that visit—and doesn’t tell you that in the very next paragraph Paul explains quite plainly that he met no one at all but these two men on that visit. So now McLatchie is hoping you don’t even read his own Bible.

Yeah, it is odd that McLatchie would argue that somehow Paul would have met other Christians in this context since it doesn’t seem all that important and Paul himself at least insists that he didn’t meet anyone who was all that important.  However, Carrier’s reply is no better:

This should not be surprising. Paul opens his argument with the assertion that he learned the Gospel from no mortal man. He outright says he did not “consult any human being.” Not just apostles. No mortal period. It was thus vitally important that he confess to any Christian he may have met on his visit to Peter, lest he be accused of lying. That’s why he insists “I am not lying.” He cannot afford to be accused of attempting an equivocation fallacy to fool the Galatians, saying he met no man, then only admitting he met no apostle, a trick of a distinction that would not have impressed the Galatians, who would have destroyed him over such an attempt to deceive them. Paul is no fool. He knows this will lose him the argument; so he cannot omit mention of any mortal human Christian he may have met then.

All this means is that Paul didn’t learn his doctrine from them.  It is indeed actually unlikely that he met no other Christians or talked to them at all, just that he didn’t derive his doctrine from them and the only people that he talked doctrine to were Peter and James.  So while we can’t conclude that Paul met other Christians and certainly wasn’t trying to say that he met other Christians, we also can’t conclude that he didn’t meet other Christians either, and it is indeed unlikely that he didn’t meet any others.  The big reason this is such an odd argument for McLatchie to make is that it does open up those arguments and is irrelevant to the argument, which is over whether the James referred to in that passage was being referred to as Jesus’ legal brother or just as another Christian.  McLatchie does talk about that in a bit more detail, and Carrier tries to address that:

Either way, this is apologetics, not history. History reveals that, indeed, Paul very explicitly and repeatedly makes clear he most definitely means these are the only two Christians he met on that trip. This is why the latest peer reviewed scholarship, and several Bible translation committees, now admit Paul means to say here that this James was not an apostle.

I’m really not sure how that follows, to be honest, and Carrier only gives a link to one of his own arguments and not to that scholarship itself.  I can’t translate the grammar from the original, but I’m going to give the King James version of the translation:

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.

19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.

I wanted to use the King James version to get a more formal translation, but the New International Version is the same:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas[b] and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

So putting aside the grammar arguments that I don’t have time to delve into, looking at this stylistically I really don’t see why it would make sense for Paul to try to distinguish James by claiming that he’s a non-apostolic Christian.  Even if the James being referred to here is the one that isn’t an apostle, if the translation really is accurate and Paul says none of the other apostles and then says “only James, the Lord’s brother” then that would really seem to be singling out a specific James as an apostle.  Sure, it can work, but it does seem a bit dubious.  Maybe the grammar argument works better but I wouldn’t hold out much hope for that.  Carrier also ignores that McLatchie argues that the purportedly non-apostolic James wouldn’t work because Paul tends to use whether they saw Jesus as the demarcation between apostolic and non-apostolic and that James did see Jesus.  So for all of the text Carrier puts here, there doesn’t seem to be anything that really matters other than pointing out an admittedly odd statement that Paul saw other Christians, and even that can be defended on the grounds that McLatchie is not relying on Paul actually having met other Christians but that it seems odd that he’d bother making that distinction in any way as opposed to just talking about the apostles.

Carrier has been obsessed in this entire post with trying to catch McLatchie in being dishonest, far more than in actually rebutting what he said, which is really bad when he gets it wrong.  Here’s another example, over the Ascension of Isaiah.

Right out of the gate he falsely claims I rely on the thesis that Paul is quoting the Ascension of Isaiah, and responds to this argument I never made with “that Paul is textually dependent upon the Ascension of Isaiah seems very unlikely.” Funny. That’s exactly what I said: “The earliest version” of the Ascension “in fact was probably composed around the very same time as the earliest canonical Gospels were being written,” and thus not before the letters of Paul. What I argue was that Paul likely was relying on some other lost apocalyptic text also used by the Ascension of Isaiah, and only that “we can rightly wonder what relationship that Apocalypse had to the Ascension of Isaiah. May it have been an earlier redaction of it?” I only muse on the possibility. I never employ such a conclusion as a premise anywhere in OHJ. Whereas I give reasons for there likely being some source text (written or oral) for Paul to be relying on for this material. McLatchie makes no response to that, my actual argument.

So we’re off to a bad start here. McLatchie then contradicts himself by admitting I date the Ascension after Paul (I guess hoping his readers don’t notice that), and then claiming “Carrier offers no argument in support of this contention.”

But what McLatchie actually argues is this:

In support of this, he argues, following Earl Doherty, that 1 Corinthians 2:8 “looks like a direct paraphrase of an early version of the Ascension of Isaiah, wherein Jesus is also the ‘Lord of Glory’, his descent and divine plan is also ‘hidden’ and the ‘rulers of this world’ are indeed the ones who crucify him, in ignorance of that hidden plan (see the Ascension of Isaiah 9.15; 9.32; 10.12,15). It even has an angel predict his resurrection on the third day (9.16), and the Latin/Slavonic contains a verse (in 11.34) that Paul actually cites as scripture, in the very same place (1 Cor. 2.9).”[14] However, that Paul is textually dependent upon the Ascension of Isaiah seems very unlikely, given that scholarly estimates of the date of the Ascension of Isaiah generally place it in the early second century (though estimates range between the late first century and the early third century). If there is any dependence, it is more likely that the Ascension is dependent on Paul, not the other way round.

Carrier claims that “The earliest version in fact was probably composed around the very same time as the earliest canonical Gospels were being written.”[15]

So, McLatchie admits that by stating it in the very next paragraph.  That’s hardly hoping that the readers wouldn’t notice it, other than by not pointing out that very fact.  McLatchie’s claim for the similarities is actually that that work referenced Paul, while Carrier has to bring in another lost text for, well, no reason.  Which means that the reason McLatchie references that Carrier doesn’t provide an argument for that is because it places it close enough to Paul in some circles so that it couldn’t be using Paul.  Carrier replies to that this way:

Liar. I cite numerous works of scholarship establishing that date, and even summarize and address some of their arguments (OHJ, pp. 36-37). And he can’t not know this, because that material is directly in the footnote to the very sentence he quotes, and immediately following.

If it’s so important that Carrier wants to make sure we remember that he argued for it, why is it in a footnote and not in the text?  While McLatchie could be criticized for stating that Carrier doesn’t argue for it if it really is argued for in the footnote, putting it in the footnote is pretty much Carrier asking us to not take it seriously, which then makes his “citing numerous works” claim something that we should not take as seriously as Carrier wants us to.

I will say that I can’t assess in any way which of these arguments is right, but do have to note that Carrier’s dismissal of Q is based on not needing to invent a text for two works that can be dependent to share, so I don’t see why he’d need to make those arguments for that here, and he never addresses the claim that it might have referenced Paul.

I probably could go through the minor differences later, and probably intended to, but I’ve been writing this for a while now and am getting sick of it, and am indeed hitting cases where on both side I’m running into issues with my knowledge (for example, reading Carrier’s comments and noting that McLatchie probably didn’t really address the reply but also reading McLatchie’s and noting that the arguments are stronger than I might have originally thought), so let me stop here.  But the big issue here for me is that Carrier’s defenses are not as strong as he portrays them, McLatchie’s counters are not as weak as Carrier portrays him, and for pretty much any accusation that Carrier makes about McLatchie being dishonest I can find an equivalent — and usually something worse — in Carrier.  This does not make me want to take Carrier’s own arguments seriously.  If Carrier would spend less time on rhetoric and more on arguments — and quoting — his arguments might be a lot better off.

Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets: 29

April 1, 2022

Soon after moving to Only Sky, Bod Seidensticker decided to add a new “Silver Bullet” argument, which he continued in two separate posts.  Since I responded to the previous 28, I thought I’d take a shot at this one as well.  And since the limit of what he’ll put in one post seems to be significantly lower than mine, I decided that I’d talk about all of those posts in one post here.

Before getting started, let me remind everyone what it is supposed to mean to be a “Silver Bullet Argument”, according to Seidensticker:

I want to relabel these arguments “silver-bullet arguments.”* Silver bullets were thought to have magical powers and be able to kill supernatural creatures like werewolves that were invulnerable to other weapons. The idea is that a single one of these arguments should be enough to defeat Christianity’s supernatural claims.

End of story, game over, mic drop.

And my main objection to them was that not a single one of them rose to that level.  Some of them may have introduced some doubts or had less than satisfying answers, but not one of them on their own could defeat Christianity or its supernatural claims.  As I noted in discussing 27, they would have worked far better as a cumulative case than individually, and that the best atheist arguments really are that sort of case, and so it was odd that Seidensticker was so insistent on claiming that these arguments all individually refuted Christianity, especially since he would have started from a very odd position claiming that he had almost thirty irrefutable arguments that completely destroyed Christianity.  I mean, wouldn’t he just need the one?  Taking the time to outline that many arguments really seems like a waste of time if the first one really did work as claimed.  So it’s an odd position to take.

This argument really isn’t any better, as the claim basically is that the arguments from Christians — and especially creationists — looks a lot to Seidensticker like Flat-Earth arguments, and this is supposed to completely and utterly defeat Christianity.  And from the start, it clearly doesn’t work.  That it might remind him in some ways of Flat-Earth arguments doesn’t make the argument wrong, and certainly doesn’t mean that Christians are going to have to accept it.  Especially since there is one critical difference between the two that shows why we dismiss Flat-Earthers but can’t do that for Christianity:  given the evidence we have we are all pretty sure that we know that the world is round, and that the only way to maintain that the world is flat is to deny all the evidence that we have and try to — often rather unconvincingly — explain it away.  This is basically what the Flat-Earther is doing in Seidensticker’s first post, at which point the responses to the Flat-Earther are a bit weak because they somewhat half-heartedly give the evidence for a round Earth instead of overwhelming them with it.  The Flat-Earther should be being given far less room to raise problems for a round Earth instead of being forced to explain the problems that a flat Earth would cause.  In general, someone advocating for a round Earth will not shy away from a demand that they have a burden of proof and will insist that they and science have indeed met it.  But as we’ve seen, when it comes to Christianity atheists go to great pains to insist that they don’t have the burden of proof — which implies that they haven’t met it — and will at times insist that they simply cannot meet such a burden of proof (usually with arguments that they can’t prove a negative).  Those who accept the idea that the Earth is round will not be afraid to say that they have a positive belief that the Earth is round and will consistently argue that, yeah, they know that the Earth is round.  Atheists, on the other hand, constantly retreat to claims that they merely lack belief in God — even the Christian God — and tend to act like they think they know that God doesn’t exist but will generally avoid saying that.  To be blunt, the reason why Flat-Earth arguments can and are completely dismissed is because Round-Earth arguments have met the burden of proof that those arguing against Christianity keep trying to dodge having to provide.  We really do just have so much better evidence that the world is round than atheists have for Christianity being false.  So it has nothing to do with the form of the argument and instead has to do with the quality of the arguments for the position.  Atheists simply don’t have strong enough arguments to get the benefits that Round-Earth arguments get against Flat-Earth arguments.  That’s not a problem with Christians or Christianity.

That deals with the first post, which is just a conversation with a Flat-Earth advocate that Seidensticker hopes will remind people of conversations with Christianity, which might work for some atheists but is probably not going to be at all effective when dealing with Christians, and you don’t really need Silver Bullet arguments to convince atheists of their positions.  So I’ll move on to the similarities that he outlines in the next two posts.

1. Sufficient evidence

Who is the audience for the argument? Not a scientist, if the argument is coming from a flat earther or a Creationist*. If Creationists were trying to do real science, they’d be going to conferences and writing papers for secular journals, like the real scientists.

Actually, Creationists have indeed been trying to do real science and trying to write papers for secular journals.  I think they’ve even succeeded at times.  Since the scientific consensus is against Creationism, getting papers published that are against the consensus is going to be quite difficult, but as we’ve seen that applies to new theories that are right as much as old theories that are wrong.  So that means absolutely nothing.

If you donate to a Creationist organization, will that fund scientific research? Of course not—it will be used to convince lay Christians that they’ve backed the right horse and to appeal for more donations.

Actually, many of the most prominent Creationist organizations actually do try to look at and examine scientific results — which is as much research as many in those fields do — to try to come up with arguments that are scientifically credible and so can challenge the scientific responses in kind.  So it isn’t the case that they just ignore the science that is causing them so much grief, as at a minimum they look at it to try to prove it wrong, in much the same way as atheists read the Bible to try to prove it wrong.  If their response to science is indicative of the same sort of moves Flat-Earthers make, then so is the atheist response to theology … and even more so, since atheists deny that theology is a valid field far more than Creationists deny that science is a valid field.  So his only move here can be “They’re arguing against science and not just accepting what it says!”, which is something that philosophy does as well when it comes to morality or consciousness and so can’t really be used as a blanket insistence that the questioning is just inherently incorrect and biased.

Seidensticker also here makes the mistake that he will make throughout this argument, which is finding parallels between Flat-Earthism and Creationism and then trying to use that against Christianity as a whole.  But a lot of Christian religions — even Catholicism — accept science and try to find a way to fit their views into what science has clearly established, and so don’t have the science denial that characterizes Flat-Earthism.  And so the argument doesn’t apply to many Christian religions and so would completely miss them, which is unacceptable in a Silver Bullet argument aimed at Christianity.

2. Misdirection by focusing on minutia

The FE proponent had lots of odd arguments. While they might have been confusing, which could have been their purpose, they were trivial. For example, our FE proponent was all over the literal map with questions about long-distance flight routes in the southern hemisphere.

The same is true for Christians and their complicated claims like the Fine Tuning argument or Ontological argument. This is what you lead with? If there were an omniscient and omnipotent god who wanted to be known, he’d be known! The very need for apologetics proves that such a god doesn’t exist.

In Christian parlance, they focus on the gnat but ignore the camel.

Well, first, as I’ve noted in my looking at the Biblical arguments most atheistic arguments against Christianity focus on trivial differences as if that matter.  In fact, inventing 29 arguments that are all supposed to individually refute Christianity really seems like that sort of approach.  Moreover, the Ontological and Fine Tuning arguments are the deeper arguments, that Seidensticker oddly dismisses.  But most damningly he chides FE proponents for having a lot of odd arguments and being all over the place but his objection to Christians is that it is not just completely obvious, which is the same argument that the FE proponents makes against the Round-Earth arguments.  So this argument really seems like a non-starter.  It seems to misunderstand the Christian arguments and treats them in the same way that FE proponents treat the Round-Earth arguments, which means that this argument seems a better parallel to atheist arguments than Christian ones.  The idea that God’s existence ought to be obvious is a different argument.

3. Gish gallop

The Gish gallop is a technique named after Creationist debater Duane Gish. His style was to pile many quick attacks onto his debating opponent while ignoring attacks to his own position. Even if his opponent were familiar with each attack and had a rebuttal, to thoroughly respond would mean descending into long, tedious explanations that would bore the audience and wouldn’t fit into a formal debate.

We see this in the FE argument. It contained rapid-fire arguments about the amount of sun in Arctic, why the moon doesn’t rotate, flat map projections, gyroscopes, and so on. This focus on quantity over quality takes advantage of the typical person’s scientific ignorance.

You see this in the Christian domain when they talk about a cumulative case. That is, any one argument may not be sufficient, but look how many there are! But consider this when applied to pseudo-sciences like astrology or Bigfoot. Crappy arguments don’t turn to gold just because you have a pile of them.

And, as with Gish, a debate or article with a pile-up of one terse argument after another is still popular among Creationists.

The big problem with this argument is that in pretty much any respectable academic field and especially in science what we really want and need is the cumulative case.  It is exceedingly rare that you can even completely refute a view with one great argument and is never the case that you can prove one.  As evidenced by his dialogue the reason we accept that the Earth is round is not because of one good argument but because we have a lot of good arguments for it.  The same is true for evolution, as it’s not just one argument or case but a host of them.  As I noted, the best atheist arguments are arguments where they say that it’s not the case that any one of these arguments can’t be worked around but the workarounds you have to make to deal with all of them suggest that it would be easier and make more sense to simply abandon it and accept the simpler atheistic argument.  Science indeed is built on holding on to old theories until there are too many problems with them that the new theories don’t have while noting that the new theories also explain what the old theories are good at explaining.  So this argument here basically rejects the scientific method to make a poor argument against Christianity.

4. Errors and lies

My goal in writing the FE position was a compelling argument, not a factual one. For a few points, I tossed out a claim that either I didn’t know was true or knew was false. I suspect this approach is common within FE arguments. If not that, then I can only conclude careless scholarship is the cause of the many errors.

I wonder how many times the typical FE proponent has been corrected. And I wonder how many corrections lead to that flawed argument never being used by that person again. In my case it takes just one such correction.

In the Creationist camp, Ray Comfort (to take one well-known example) has been schooled many times how evolution doesn’t predict a crocoduck. My guess is that he values the useful argument more than he is repelled by the broken one.

Considering all the times I’ve seen, say, incorrect interpretations of Natural Law or Cosmological Arguments or Ontological Arguments I think this might be a case of throwing stones in glass houses.  Anyway, if the arguments are wrong, then they’re wrong and he wouldn’t need this argument, and citing one or even a number of people who maintain old and outdated and refuted arguments does not a refutation of Christianity make.

5. Always attack

The FE argument is a stringing together of arguments of the form, “Didya ever wonder about natural feature X? A round earth model is supposed to explain that? That’s crazy!”

It’s easier to attack a scientific model than to defend one when the audience is poorly educated in science. FE (and Creationist) arguments try to keep the opponent off balance, always on the defensive.

If they throw ten punches, only two of which land with any impact, that’s two more than they started with. A layperson poorly educated in the material and predisposed to root for the anti-science argument might give the decision to the attacker.

With an argument that intends to be scientific, the opposite is true, and a new theory is explained, supported with evidence, and defended. Not only should it explain what the old theory explains well (and a round earth and evolution explain a lot), it must explain additional puzzles that tripped up the old theory.

The Creationist hopes that no one notices their Achilles’ heel. An attack on evolution does nothing to build up any competing theory of their own.

Atheists spend their entire time not only attacking Christianity but also spending a lot of time trying to justify a claim that they only are required to attack and have no need to provide any evidence.  This is thus a bit of a “Pot calling the kettle black” argument.

6. Burden of proof

The FE proponent explicitly rejected the burden of proof, saying that they had common sense on their side. But no one would accept this. They ignored the Sagan standard, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and rejecting centuries of scientific consensus is the extraordinary position.

It’s also in vogue for Christians to insist that both parties in its debates—the Christian and the atheist—are making claims, and so both must defend their positions. But while the atheist has the option to defend “There is no God” or “There is no supernatural,” that’s not necessary. Either of these could be the default position, leaving the burden of proof solely on the Christian.

I find it amazing that Christians will, without embarrassment, insist on this concession—aren’t they eager to share the Good News without prerequisite?—but here again, they know it’s easier for them to attack than defend.

Again, this is quite rich considering all the arguments that atheists make to avoid ever accepting the burden of proof.  If the evidence was so clearly on their side, why wouldn’t they be willing to share it?  It’s because they, as Seidensticker says here about Christians, also believe that it’s easier to attack than defend.  And a statement that opposes what the majority believe like the two he cites cannot be a default position, and he cannot unilaterally declare that the position he holds should be the default so he can dump the burden of proof on his opponents.  No, he’d need to provide evidence and arguments for that … the very thing that atheists go to great pains to avoid having to do.

7. Circular reasoning

The proponent of any theory could show how, starting with a set of widely accepted initial assumptions, an unbiased observer can follow the evidence and conclude with their theory. For example, think of a university course in physics where the professor starts with basic facts that everyone shares and uses evidence to gradually build from there.

FE believers and Christians often follow that approach backwards. They assume their theory and then show how their worldview is consistent with the facts of the world. The best they can do is show that their worldview isn’t falsified by reality and insist that the burden of proof is actually shouldered by their opponent. This is circular reasoning.

Looking at the above point, atheists do that far more often than Christians do.  The Ontological argument that Seidensticker derides is obviously not that kind of argument, which also shows why Christians actually use it.  Meanwhile the strongest atheist argument is the Problem of Evil which is an argument of that sort.  Now, arguments of that sort aren’t invalid since they are used to show that their worldview fits reality better, but then the response from the other side is of course to show that their view is indeed not inconsistent with reality and so can still work.  The debate in his conversation was about people doing that, but with the Round-Earth side being too weakly expressed.

So as we go along, Seidensticker’s arguments really seem to fit atheism better than Christianity, which is not what he wanted.

8. Appeal to common sense

The FE argument want you to use your eyes and trust your senses. Look at the horizon—it’s flat! Climb a mountain or look over the ocean, and the horizon is still flat. “If flat earth theory is wrong, it’s got to be the rightest wrong theory ever.”

The Creationist equivalent is to say that humans and worms and even bacteria are so complicated that they certain look designed. A Christian example is the Kalam Cosmological Argument, where the first premise has a twist on the common sense idea that everything must have a cause.

No, common sense isn’t reliable at the frontier of science. If it were simply a matter of following one’s common sense, someone like Isaac Newton would’ve resolved all of science’s loose ends centuries ago. Or even Aristotle, millennia ago. “Life is complicated—it must be designed” is common sensical but wrong. The same is likely true for the insistence that everything in nature had a cause.

Common sense and our sense experiences are our first and best access to the world.  However, they can be wrong.  And so we go by them but when we get enough evidence that they are wrong we readjust based on that evidence.  That’s why we know that the stick doesn’t really bend in water.  That’s why we know that the world is round.  What the atheist is missing that the Round-Earth proponent is not is that evidence, and the atheist consistently is at great pains to avoid actually providing it, demanding that the Christian must provide that evidence even in light of comments that atheism violates common sense.  So of course atheism is not going to get the same benefits that the world being round does, which invalidates this entire comparison and so this entire “Silver Bullet”.

That was the second post, so now into the third:

9. “God did it” resolves every problem

Flat earth thinkers and Christians rarely give a thought to the work of materials scientists, quantum physicists, or chemists. And they happily use the fruits of modern science like computers, electricity, and airplanes. They only lose sleep over those scientific fields that step on their theological toes such as geology which gives an old dating of the earth (and annoys young-earth Creationists), astronomy which gives round planets circling the sun (flat earthers), or biology which explains life through evolution (conservative Christians).

When faced with a tough problem, the scientist may admit, “I don’t know.” But flat earthers and Christians always have the God card that they can’t resist playing. They’ll point to science when they like its conclusions, and otherwise declare that God did it (or God is inscrutable, or God’s ways are not our ways, or some similar argument). It’s nice having a God that can be reshaped to fit any need, I guess.

Flat earthers demand, “What does it look like?” when they see a flat earth. And Creationists demand, “What does it look like?” when they see the God who must’ve made our world this complicated.

Atheists look at FE thinking and see pseudoscience, and at Christianity and see just one more manmade religion made of legend and myth.

This is an argument that doesn’t follow from his title, since he’s complaining that they reject science when it contrasts with their view which is not a “God did it” reply.  This also doesn’t apply to accommodationists who think that religion and science are compatible and that when they clash religion must give way (this is, in fact, the actual stated position of the Catholic Church).  So this is far more a rant than an argument.  If Christians are right that the science is wrong or that there’s room for God in that science then their move is valid, and if they’re wrong it isn’t.  Seidensticker needs to show it’s wrong instead of trying to make a parallel to Flat-Earthism.

10. Indoctrination

In the FE argument, those of us who remain skeptical were called indoctrinated. Apparently we can’t see the clarity of the FE worldview because we’ve marinated too long in a round-earth environment. We’re too devoted to authority figures who tell us what to think.

But the lady doth protest too much. The difference is that those of us who get our reality about nature from the scientific consensus can point to a remarkable track record. By contrast, FE thinking and Christianity have taught us zero new things about reality, and their disciplines’ track records show only failure.

Naturalist laypeople can accept the scientific consensus as the provisional truth, but we have no authority figures whose declarations we must embrace or which we refuse to challenge.

To those who place themselves as science’s ultimate authority and reserve for themselves the right to pick and choose the science they’ll accept, I have a challenge. They must fill in the blank in this declaration: “I reject the scientific consensus of field X, even though I’m an outsider to that field, because ___.”

Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific paradigms only fade away when all of the old scientists who were educated in the old theories fade away and are replaced by those who were educated in the new ones.  That sounds sufficiently similar to indoctrination to me to invalidate the title.  The rest of it is criticizing what knowledge religion has brought us, which only works if you try to claim that religion is a way of knowing which many do not.  And speaking as someone who does philosophy it is indeed the case that if we want to reject the scientific consensus we need a reason but that reasons for that are often a lot easier to come by than Seidensticker seems to think it is.  Including that the scientific consensus is not as clear as lay people like Seidensticker think it is and that the conclusions they are making do not follow as directly from science as they think it does.  And, again, if they’re right, then this doesn’t matter and if they’re wrong then Seidensticker would need to focus on that rather than on this parallel.

11. Science is hard

The flat-earth argument is correct when it points out that science is hard, and that’s a weakness for the round-earth position. To those of us who care about which worldview is correct and nothing more, it can be frustrating to realize that some might embrace a worldview despite its not being correct.

This is the problem with the science-based approach. We’re subjected to a Gish gallop of our own making. Yes, you can explain the science, but it’s a slog that demands patience from our audience.

And yet just above Seidensticker criticized Christianity for having a bunch of complicated arguments that require us to do a lot of thinking and that touches on a lot of different areas.  Yes, he insisted that if there really is a God that shouldn’t be the case but philosophically speaking worldviews are always going to have a lot to do no matter what.  And I also pointed out that the idea that God is supposed to be obvious is another argument and so can’t be used to defend what is supposed to be an argument that on its own would defeat Christianity.

12. Conspiracy theories

You think the earth is a disk? Here’s the view of earth from the International Space Station. As you can see, the earth is round. Next question.

But of course that won’t satisfy a FE zealot. If inconvenient facts get in the way, they might explain them as a conspiracy.

Creationists, which includes most conservative Christians, have their own inconvenient facts. Evolution convulses their world, so it must be wrong. Again, apologist Greg Koukl is our example. He says that not only is evolution flawed but those within the field know it’s flawed. In other words, it’s a conspiracy.

But here’s an odd problem. Apologist and fellow evolution denier Jim Wallace comes at the question of conspiracy theories from another angle. He says an invented resurrection of Jesus is an incredible conspiracy.

So these apologists tell us that it’s plausible that tens of thousands of evolutionary biologists are part of a conspiracy today but implausible that a small group of people would invent and support the Resurrection claim centuries ago. I’ll let them fight it out.

Here is another example where Seidensticker conflates Creationists and Christians which invalidates his argument.  This would only be a problem if the same person argued both cases, because it would be a contradiction.  So it might apply to Jim Wallace.  It doesn’t apply to Christianity in general, and again is a different argument and so not one that he can argue on the basis of the parallel.  And taking on the parallel, where is Seidensticker’s “picture from the ISS”?  Again, Seidensticker and other atheists go to great pains to avoid having to ever provide that evidence that can only be explained by a huge conspiracy theory, which is why we can dismiss the Flat-Earth proponent.  Given the atheist worldview, the Christian cannot be dismissed in the same way.

13. Playing the skeptic

The FE proponent was just being skeptical. Who can complain about that since science welcomes challenges, right? If it’s correct, it can tolerate a few friendly questions.

But “friendly questions” of this nature have consequences. Remember how anti-vax media asked whether hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin or even bleach could be effective treatments for COVID. They were just asking questions—where’s the problem?

The problem was that inventing a worldview based on fake news undercut the credibility of the worldview that was based on real science.

Creationism is a far bigger industry than the FE, with researchers busily undermining the credibility of evolution with pseudoscience. They’ve been fairly successful, and 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. accept Creationism over evolution. The problem here is false stories that encourage people to reject the truth.

Do you remember the Ken Ham (Creationist) vs. Bill Nye (scientist) debate? They were asked what would change their minds. Nye quickly gave a couple of examples of potential new data that would change his mind. But what would change Ken Ham’s mind? Nothing, he admitted.

And that’s the problem with FE proponents and Creationists. Remember point #5: Always attack. They ask questions, but these are only meant to sow doubt. They don’t actually want them answered. It’s not like they have any intention of changing their minds because of new information.

Note that a number of atheists can’t say what would change their minds as well, so this isn’t as good an argument as Seidensticker thinks.  And atheists have defined themselves as “just being skeptical”.  And even his examples are ones where people didn’t just invent these ideas, but had some kind of reasoning.  I think that the reasoning, as I heard it, was that those drugs also reduced inflammation and the big problems from COVID were caused by inflammation.  Arguing that COVID’s not caused by worms and so the ivermectin wouldn’t kill COVID was not a reasonable response to that argument, since that wasn’t why they were advocating for it in the first place.  So in general if people could actually reply to “friendly questions” instead of relying on insulting dismissals then perhaps that wouldn’t happen.  Or maybe it would.  At any rate, Flat-Earthism does not seem to benefit from this so this parallel doesn’t seem valid, even if Seidensticker’s concerns were valid, which in the case of Christianity they may not be.

14. Sweeping, unfalsifiable claims

FE proponents are usually Christian, and they’ll point to the obvious flat earth models in the Bible. This means that if an argument isn’t going the way they’d hoped, they have the option to fall back on an omnipotent God. They’ll say that if God’s actions are surprising, you can take it up with him. God moves in mysterious ways, we’re in no position to judge God, blah blah blah.

But it’s not possible to falsify “God did X” since God is always a dozen steps ahead of us. And by being unfalsifiable, this claim is unscientific.

The Creationist or Christian is hoist by the same petard. Perhaps if they see parallels with FE thinking, they’ll be less likely to make the FE proponent’s claims.

Scientific American blog post makes the science/pseudoscience distinction clearer.

Scientific claims are falsifiable, … while pseudo-scientific claims fit with any imaginable set of observable outcomes. What this means is that you could do a test that shows a scientific claim to be false, but no conceivable test could show a pseudo-scientific claim to be false. Sciences are testable, pseudo-sciences are not.

If God is capable of doing something and we can come up with a plausible — even if mysterious — motivation for Him to do something, then that’s a valid response to an attack that says that something must be natural.  That’s not the sort of thing that makes something unfalsifiable.  Also, after arguing that Creationists reject science he seems to want to argue against them by arguing that their views are unscientific, which is a bit of a contradiction.  Also, Christianity being unfalsifiable is, again, another argument, and so we shouldn’t need to try to make that parallel to pull it off if it’s valid, especially since Flat-Earth proponents would clearly deny that their view is unfalsifiable, but would insist that it hasn’t been yet because they can find ways to fit the evidence into their theory and note that from their perspective it’s the Round-Earth theory that’s invalidly trying to fit the evidence into their theory.  So that doesn’t really work.

15. Teach it in schools?

I haven’t seen any FE proponent demand that their alternate reality be taught in schools. I’m sure the average Christian would be as outraged at the suggestion as any atheist. But if that’s the case, Christians should help keep all pseudoscience, including Creationism, out of schools.

That assumes it’s pseudoscience, which assumes it’s wrong.  Again, the fact that Round-Earthism has so much better evidence in its favour and isn’t trying to deny that it needs to provide evidence works against Seidensticker’s argument here.

I can wrap up this post by responding to this summary statement:

Christians, how can you accept Christianity but reject flat earth theory when these 15 parallels show how similar they are? Christianity is in present society only because it was in past society. It’s been grandfathered in. It didn’t earn its way in with evidence like science.

I can do that because we have much better positive evidence in favour of Round-Earthism than we do for atheism, and Round-Earth proponents don’t spend a lot of time arguing that they don’t have to prove anything and refusing to provide evidence to Flat-Earth proponents.  If Seidensticker really had such strong evidence in arguments and provided them instead of dodging them and trying to push the burden of proof on the beliefs that are accepted by most people, then maybe we would reject Christianity as well.

Q Who? Carrier on whether Luke used Matthew or another source

February 18, 2022

I talked a little bit about the Q controversy — a supposed common source that both Luke and Matthew used and Carrier’s claim that instead of that being the case Luke might have just used Matthew — while talking about Jonathan MS Pearce’s views on the Resurrection and the Gospels.  However, Richard Carrier just made one of his typically bombastic posts arguing against Q, and while I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole in arguing this — as, again, theology is something like seventh on my list of philosophical interests (after luge) — I felt it worthwhile to examine it a bit, especially in light of the fact that Carrier tends to make very aggressive arguments against his opponents, so much so that he had better be right, and yet here, as is so often the case, it doesn’t seem like he can justify the strong stance he takes.  I mean, the title is “The Backwards and Unempirical Logic of Q Apologetics”, so Carrier had better be able to show that the logic is backwards, unempirical, and most importantly not the sort of logic that he also relies on, and from my perspective he doesn’t manage to do any of those.  Also, the more I read these arguments the less convinced I am that they hold any merit, so much so that I am just being confirmed in my theory that they didn’t use each other but used common sources.  As I’ve noted before, I don’t want to get into that for Mark because I’d need to do a lot more detailed research to really challenge that consensus, but since the consensus seems to be for Q it’s pretty safe for me to point out that Carrier has not done enough to challenge that without having to know the full details of every argument out there.

So, let’s start with Carrier setting out the invalid method he thinks his opponents are using (as an aside, Carrier seems to have now come to the conclusion that in general the opponents that he thinks are the most wrong are using an invalid epistemology instead of just disagreeing with him, and so most of this posts seem to focus on that idea):

But there is a recurring methodological travesty that keeps Q theory alive that is worth calling attention to: defenses of Q always hinge on some modern scholar claiming magical knowledge of the secret thoughts and intentions of ancient authors. Instead of going at history in an empirically logical way, where you look at what an author actually said and didn’t say, at the choices they actually made, and then infer from that what their thoughts and intentions are (which is called “evidence-based reasoning”), Q apologetics starts with presumptions as to what an author’s thoughts and intentions were—typically phrased as what they “must” have been, thus insisting on some sort of existential laws of the universe compelling ancient authors to do modern scholars’ bidding, as if by backwards psychic causation. And then they use that unevidenced presumption to invent new conclusions about the evidence, which then becomes “new evidence” that they use as a premise in another step of reasoning. This is backwards logic, and decidedly not empirical. It should never survive critique or review, in any empirical field of knowledge. But as this field has an unhealthy affinity for Christian apologetics, its standards are quite low when apologetical methods are on display.

Now, I had never seen arguments that even talked about “must” here, and even later Carrier’s examples switch to talking about them saying that they “never” do that, and even with that it turns out that only one source — that was summarizing the debates — actually inserted “never” into the arguments.  For the most part, the arguments tend to be the sort of probabilistic arguments that Carrier in general ought to favour and that he himself uses later on.  The arguments tend to be arguments of the form “If Luke was copying things from Matthew, why wouldn’t he copy this?” or more generally “It’s improbable that Luke would be the way it is if he had access to Matthew”.  Now, of course, all of these arguments are challengeable, but they aren’t obviously backwards, and when Carrier tries to argue that they are he tends to get himself in trouble.

This backwards methodology appears elsewhere in Biblical studies, so it’s a trope, not particular to Q studies. Such as when it’s argued that Luke “would never” have left out the Great Omission, “therefore” that text must not have existed in his copy of Mark, “therefore” that material was interpolated. Empirical reasoning—actual logical reasoning—would work the other way around: Luke chose not to use that material from Mark (everything from Mark 6:45 to 8:26), ergo we are warranted in working out what reasons he might have had not to.

So, Carrier talks about starting from presumptions and then using those presumptions as evidence for the conclusion that they’re trying to prove, and yet what he’s doing here, at least in its short form of the argument, is exactly the same thing.  If we knew that the material was originally in Mark, then we could immediately jump to figuring out why Luke would leave it out, but if there’s any doubt over whether it was in the version of Mark that Luke had then you can’t just jump to that.  Now, what you can do is argue that given Luke’s general project and general approach it makes perfect sense that Luke would leave it out, but from what I’ve read that’s doing the exact same thing as the people that Carrier is claiming are approaching it “backwards”, except that Carrier is arguing the positive side and his opponents are arguing the negative side.  Carrier is arguing that Luke absolutely would have wanted to leave it out and his opponents are arguing that he wouldn’t have wanted to leave it out.  While we may not be able to get absolutely certainty — since we have to do a lot of interpretation — we should be able to come up with which of those seems the most likely.  But what is important here is that both sides are using the exact same approach here:  figure out what makes sense given what we have of Luke and his intentions and then argue what theory is most consistent with that.

In actual fact, the presumption of an interpolation (especially of such extraordinary length) is always very improbable. Even granting abundant evidence that such things occurred a lot in Christian literature, it’s still less frequent than once in every two hundred verses. Which is why you need evidence for such a proposal (and quite good evidence), not just its “mere possibility.”

This doesn’t seem to be a very good argument, especially since they are indeed giving evidence for that proposal, which is that if Luke had seen it in Mark he wouldn’t have left it out, and Carrier actually refutes his own argument that it is very improbable that it happens by arguing that it happens a lot but seemingly not often enough to be taken seriously.  Carrier, therefore, cannot just say that interpolations don’t happen frequently enough to be taken seriously here because they do happen frequently enough to be considered if we have reason to consider it.  That reason is the argument that Luke would have used this material — or, arguably, at least some of it, since it’s pretty large — if he had access to it, and if he had access to Mark and it was in the copy he had access to then by definition he had access to this material … and yet didn’t use it.  So Carrier cannot just dismiss those arguments as not being evidence, but has to answer why Luke would have left it out in light of their claims, presumably, that there is stuff in there that Luke really, really would have wanted to use.

It’s all the worse that not only does its prior probability thus tank this hypothesis, but the evidential probability does as well: since we can prove Luke knew Matthew, the jig is up. Even if Luke’s Mark lacked that material, Luke’s Matthew didn’t, so it is still the case that Luke saw that material and chose not to use it. So “interpolation” becomes entirely ineffective as an explanation for the Great Omission. The evidence supports “Luke chose not to use it” well over “Luke never saw it.” So much for that.

This count is a terrible argument in this context, so bad that I didn’t even realize how bad it was until copying it over just now.  The reason it is bad in this context is that the entire Q debate is over whether Luke had and used Matthew as a source.  The Q theory states that Luke didn’t and all the common content between the two of them came from Q and not from Matthew.  Thus, while Carrier has spent a lot of time arguing for that conclusion the existence of this entire post means that Carrier is very well aware that some people — and perhaps the consensus — disagrees with him.  So he cannot blithely use that as evidence against “The Great Omission” in this context, or else he doesn’t need to analyze the logic of his opponents at all and could just provide his proof.  So saying “I know that people disagree with me, but I know that Luke used Matthew and so can use that to prove that Luke was leaving things out” seems like him assuming his conclusion or, at least, taking a view that he knows people have challenged and arguing that because we must accept that at least somewhat controversial view we can refute this other argument.  You cannot base a response to an argument on an argument that is itself being challenged, especially since the post here is supposedly arguing against those challenges.  We have so many reasons to find that argument dubious that we would really need to settle that first before using this as an example based on Carrier’s argument against Q.

However, the reason that I just realized is that this example could actually be used against Carrier’s argument against Q.  Let’s say that the contextual argument works, and that we indeed have really good reason to think that if Luke had had access to this material he would have used it, and so it doesn’t look like he had access to this material.  Then Carrier’s argument that the material was in Matthew and Luke didn’t use it becomes an argument that Luke didn’t have access to or use Matthew as a source, because the same argument would apply:  Luke would have used it if he had it, so if he didn’t use it then he didn’t have it, so just as he didn’t have it from Mark he didn’t have it from Matthew as well.  If the Mark hypothesis is valid (Luke used Mark) then if you wanted to show that Luke simply chose not to use it then turning to Mark is the more solid argument, because the only argument someone could make is the one that Carrier disagrees with:  that it was an interpolation.  But since it is still a live option to argue that Luke didn’t use Matthew, if the reasons that Luke would have wanted to use at least something from that section are actually valid then it becomes a reason to think he didn’t have access to Matthew, because so far everyone agrees that that was always in Matthew.  And even worse for Carrier, if Luke was using both Mark and Matthew as a source then at least some of the reasons for him not using — he didn’t consider it reliable, for example — go away.

Regardless, Carrier would need to address the arguments that Luke would have wanted to use stuff from it if he had access to it, either by attacking those reasons or by giving reasons why Luke wouldn’t have wanted to use it.  Carrier will ignore the former and take a stab at the latter:

Thus, sound—as in, actually empirical and actually logical—approaches to the Great Omission accept the choice theory and abandon the interpolation theory. After all, Luke often leaves material out, including big chunks (like the “Little Omission” of Mark 9:41-10:12).

Many theories have been proposed for Luke’s Great Omission (for just some of them see, for example, this Stack Exchange; and examples in Pattem, above). If I were to start exploring a hypothesis myself, it would be that Luke needed to cut material to add his own, given the limited length of a standard scroll at the time; and the material he cut exactly corresponds to two of three repetitious cycles of material in Mark (see On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 412-13), which is a typical Markan practice (to employ triplets and threes, often to emphasize specific points; ibid.). That this finding (that that material exactly corresponds to two cycles in a sequence of three in Mark) is independent of Luke’s Omission (it was discovered and proved without reference to it) makes for an unlikely coincidence. It looks to me that Luke saw Mark repeating the same sequence of events three times (albeit each time with different stories expressing the same ideas), and saw an obvious economy in just using one of them (and conspicuously, the first of them). The rest could go. So they did. This is how you use evidence to reach a conclusion.

This … is not a good counterargument.  Sure, Luke might have needed some room to insert his own content, but that doesn’t in any way address why he chose not to copy this section.  You could use that as an argument against his including any of the sections he actually included.  What we need to figure out to assess these arguments is why Luke includes what he includes and leaves out what he leaves out.  The supposedly “sound” approach only notes that Luke leaves things out, but that does only work against a “Luke never leaves anything out of Mark” which, well, we do indeed know is completely false and so no one will make that argument, and so these arguments — if they are at all sound at all, which I cannot explicitly warrant — have to be ones that work not based on “Luke never leaves anything out” but instead on “Why would Luke leave this out?”.  And nothing in Carrier’s approach ever addresses those specifics, which means that he cannot actually refute his opponents other than by saying that they could be wrong … and as he himself notes, mere possibility is insufficient.

So then he turns to Q and tries to apply the same analysis, about as successfully:

Correct logic would go the other way around. Instead of claiming magical knowledge of what authors “would never” do, you would look for evidence of what authors actually do, and then build your generalizations from those actual particulars.

And, in internal context, we have many examples of how Luke uses sources—because we have one of them: Mark.

So. What do you think happens when you look to see if Luke changes Mark? Gosh. So much for the Q apologists. Luke often changes ****.

This only works from arguments that are absolutely based on “never”, but the arguments from the Stack Exchange he himself links don’t really do that:

Here are some of the arguments people make:

  • Matthew and Luke have very different birth narratives, genealogies, post-resurection accounts, and stories of Judas (assuming Luke wrote Acts). Thus it seems unlikely that they knew each other.
  • If Luke had access to Matthew why wouldn’t he have used more of Matthew’s modifications to Mark?
  • Some of the sayings in common appear to be in a “more original form” in Luke and others in Matthew. For example, Luke says “blessed are the poor” while Matthew says “blessed are the poor in spirit” and many people think the former was likely to be the original, hence Luke wasn’t using Matthew but rather Matthew’s source.

There are more summaries there, but this one is the most clear (it’s a Stack Exchange, which speaking as a software designer is absolutely useless for this sort of thing).  Carrier references all of these in his discussion and some of the others, but never really addresses them, at least not specifically.  (He will talk about the “poor” versus “poor in spirit” one later, which I will talk about when we get there).  But the key is that these are indeed puzzles.  If we assume that Luke definitely used Mark as a source, we have to note that, for example, Mark didn’t have a birth narrative and Matthew had it from the beginning, and so if Luke had access to and copied copiously from Matthew — under Carrier’s theory all of the purportedly common material that Q proponents argue came from Q would have to have come from Matthew — why is his birth narrative so different from Matthew’s?  Carrier will tend to want to argue that Luke just changed it on his own, but we would need to give reasons for his doing that, and Carrier never does do that and it isn’t something that can be addressed with a simple “Sometimes Luke changes things”.  At a minimum, we’d at least want to get some neutral party who doesn’t care to sit down and try to find a consistent pattern to what he keeps and what he doesn’t, even if that really is simply length constraints.  Carrier isn’t doing that and is just tossing out generalities and hoping that they will refute specific oddities and that never works.

He then moves on to talking about a specific scholar that he seems to respect — which, obviously, doesn’t stop him from calling him a liar and irrational — in assessing Dennis MacDonald’s version, which Carrier likes better because it concedes that Luke used Matthew but argues that there also was a Q as well.

We find this backwards logic (and claims to “magical knowledge” about what authors “would never” do) even in the otherwise more credible approach of Dennis MacDonald, whose version of Q theory has the merits that it admits that Luke used Matthew as a source, that Q wasn’t a sayings source but a full Gospel (a complete narrative with an agenda and argument through-line, and not a random hodgepodge like the Gospel of Thomas), and that it followed the same literary conventions as the other Gospels (it was composed in Greek, used the sequenced pericope method of assembly, and emulated other literature for its content—in particular, the Greek text of the book of Deuteronomy). All of that is provably true (however much biblical scholars want to deny them, the actual evidence is extensive and not honestly dismissible). But none of that actually entails his (or any) Q hypothesis. Because all of that just sounds like…Matthew. Why then do we need to imagine a Q? We have “Q”!

Presumably, the reason for adding Q is because there are some things that are in common between Luke and Matthew that it doesn’t make sense to claim came from Matthew.  I am not aware of the specific debate there, but surely if MacDonald accepts that Luke had access to Matthew he’s not simply claiming that the common material couldn’t have come from Matthew but that at least some of it couldn’t have.  This is obviously a weaker argument but not one that Carrier can dismiss by saying that the format of Q aligns with the format of Matthew and so they are the same thing.  Surely MacDonald has some argument from the contents of Luke and Matthew for arguing that we nevertheless need a Q.  And if he doesn’t have that, then all Carrier needs to do is point out that he doesn’t have those arguments and so there is no basis to argue that we need a Q, without relying on these generalizations that he expresses so aggressively.

I’m going to skip the analysis of Papias because I don’t know anything about that and move on to specific differences in the texts, starting with this:

And the same holds for MacDonald’s entire case for his version of Q, which largely rests on a single conjecture about his ability to magically “know” that when Luke simplified a saying in Matthew that’s not in Mark, this “means” Luke is consulting a text that says something more like what Luke is saying, which Matthew had embellished, and therefore this “proves” Q is not Matthew. But as we just saw, no such principle is valid. Luke often does the same thing to Mark. So it cannot be argued that when Luke does it to Matthew that this means he’s then getting such material from somewhere else.

It’s notable that when I pointed this out to MacDonald recently, he got quite angry and sought to browbeat the point away without ever actually responding to it. Which does typify an apologist defending a dogma rather than a historian trying to ascertain the truth independent of their hopes and desires.

Because obviously Carrier himself never gets angry and tries to browbeat points away, and obviously Carrier is never aggressive in his approach which will tick people off even if they have real arguments.  In a post where he’s arguing that his opponents are not empirical and are engaging in flawed logic and even in fallacies, it’s notably that Carrier uses as argument ad hominem here:  challenging him made him mad which means that he’s not acting as a historian and so we should ignore him.  Carrier doesn’t provide an example of the browbeating so we can’t assess if that was indeed MacDonald ignoring the points or expressing anger at being browbeaten by Carrier or something in between.  So, again, this is nothing more than an attempt to attack MacDonald’s credibility instead of his arguments, and in a way that rather resembles Carrier’s approach to debate.

So let’s talk about “simpler” and “more primitive”, which is one of the arguments that is used about some of the phrasings:

“Simpler” does not mean “more primitive” as Q apologists insist, and MacDonald is still too sold on that old fallacious equivocation to concede the point.

Well, this is indeed true, but Carrier needs to do more than point that out as a generalization.  One of the example phrases is the “poor” vs “poor in spirit” quote from above.  Simpler would imply saying the same thing with less words (which many people might say is something that could be done with, well, pretty much everything I write [grin]), but that doesn’t seem to apply here, as “poor” means something completely different as “poor in spirit”.  More importantly, it does seen like “poor in spirit” is a more advanced philosophical or theological concept, moving away from a simple concept of “has no money” towards something more spiritual, and in some sense towards something where that “blessing” doesn’t get lost if the person gets a good job.  But I hesitate to make such an argument because the meanings are too different and, as we’ll see later, tie into different theological views more than simply moving from a more primitive to a more advanced idea.  Moreover, I don’t like this analysis in general because a difference at this level doesn’t say much about which came first or takes precedence.  If we had a clear delineation of the progress of Christian theology at this time, then we could use that to place these things in the right place relative to each other on this line and so might be able to make an argument for which came first or later and settle this, but we don’t have this for Christianity so these sorts of arguments are going to be referencing hugely different theologies and so we need to be concerned more with the consistency of the internal theologies than with consistency across them.

And here we see why it is so crucial to admit that, even if there was a Q, Luke still knew and used Matthew (as MacDonald does, setting him apart from many Q apologists who fear exactly the consequence of that admission I am about to relate): this means Luke saw “poor in spirit” in Matthew’s version and still chose to omit “in the spirit.” This is harder to explain for MacDonald. Because the moment you come up with any reason why Luke would prefer the original to Matthew’s adaptation, you have just come up with a reason why Luke would change Matthew to what he wanted himself. In other words, you just blew up your own theory, by providing a perfectly good explanation already as to why Luke would drop that word and just stick with “the poor.”

Well, actually, no, they wouldn’t have, because even accepting that Luke used Matthew as a reference we still have to explain why Luke would simply go ahead and change Matthew’s “poor in spirit” to “poor”.  Someone in the comments gives a couple of reasons — like that he didn’t think Matthew’s was correct — and later we’ll talk about Luke’s overall project, but if we deny that Luke used any other source then Luke has to be just doing that all on his own, but if Luke was using other sources and at least one of them had that story or saying then Luke instead would be selecting from his sources the one that he thinks most “fits”, which for him is clearly “poor”.  And at that point any argument Carrier can make to show that Luke would prefer the “poor” phrasing now works as well if not better on the other theory:  Luke is assembling from sources and where they conflict he picks the one that best fits with his theological views, as opposed to Luke using a source and changing the meaning of something that he only had from that source to what he likes better for no reason other than that he likes it better.  It’s only if you think that Luke is inherently dishonest that you can prefer the latter explanation, and dishonesty can never be a preferred default because unless you can prove that they lie about everything — and good luck with that — you always need a reason for them to lie in that situation … and in this case that reason cannot be “Liked it better” because the other theory also predicts that the differences we see will reflect what things that Luke himself preferred, but doesn’t have to argue that he just changes meanings willy-nilly.

Now, Carrier’s argument could work if he could show that the only sources that Luke used were Mark and Matthew, because then there’d be no chance of his getting the same story anywhere else.  But we know that’s not true, because there are things in Luke that are not in either Mark or Matthew.  So where did Luke get those from?  Carrier could argue that Luke simply made it up, but that doesn’t work for two reasons.  The first is that if the Gospels were written after Christianity was established, we know that there had to be verbal narratives going around before they were written, and so there were sources available.  We also know from other Gospels that there were threads that differed and aligned in various ways.  We also have confirmation for this from Paul.  Thus, we know that at least some oral histories were around and potentially available to them.  The second reason is because of what this implies for all of the Gospels.  If any Gospel used a separate source, then it is possible that the other Gospels used separate sources as well and, in theory, that their commonalities could be explained by the fact that they all used that common source instead of using each other.  So to make this work, you’d have to argue that Mark invented everything in his Gospel, and then Matthew used Mark and invented everything that wasn’t in Mark, and then Luke used Matthew and Mark and invented everything that wasn’t in either of them.  And then you’d still have the problem that John doesn’t seem to use any of them.  So it’s far more likely that each author used sources outside of the canonical Gospels, whether written or not.

So, Luke had other sources than Mark and Matthew, even if he used them.  And then the natural approach would be to explain differences — and particularly changes — by appealing to Luke finding the altered story in another source and, liking it better, used that instead.  While this would hurt Q theories because we wouldn’t need one source and in particular one written source to explain the similarities, it also hurts Carrier’s argument because Luke could indeed be changing things based on other sources and it definitely opens the door to Luke not needing to have access to Matthew as long as he could get access to enough of the same sources Matthew used for his additions.  If they were using the same sources but not each other, then even verbatim quotes would not be at all puzzling, and so we’d have no reason to insist that they used each other, and then the differences between them can be explained by the use of different sources that suggest different things.  And Luke’s opening to his Gospel does imply that he’s going to be using multiple sources and oral histories to build his Gospel instead of at least relying solely on the existing written accounts.

(And yes, this could be used to argue that he didn’t use Mark either.  Again, I don’t want to get into that, but do want to note here that this would also fix another issue, which is that as Carrier and Pearce note Luke tries to present himself as doing history but doesn’t reference his sources, which was fairly standard — if not universally done — even by historians at the time.  Their theory is that he’s either a bad historian or not really doing history.  This theory would say that he didn’t give them as sources because he didn’t use them as sources, and if he’s tracing oral histories there’s no real source to give, which explains why he gives no sources).

By contrast to this circular reasoning, where you just assume when Luke drops or changes something from Matthew he isn’t using Matthew (and then use examples of when he does that as evidence that Luke isn’t using Matthew), let’s look at what an evidence-based method would do with this same information. Goodacre lays it out: Luke is more concerned about income disparity than the other evangelists. Not only does he add one of the most elaborate and colorful parables on the subject (that of the Rich Man and Lazarus) as well as the conspicuous declaration of Zaccheus (Luke 19:5-9) and the Magnificat besides (in which “the low will be made high, the hungry filled, and the rich sent away empty”), Luke doubles the amount of material about “the poor” throughout his entire Gospel (at least 8 distinct mentions, to the 4 we find in Matthew and 3 in Mark), and specifically (and uniquely) has Jesus say of himself, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He did anoint me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), which is a direct description of what he then is doing in Luke 6:20 when he says, “Blessed are the poor.” Luke also retains the tale of the Widow’s Mite from Mark (while Matthew dropped it), and makes “the poor” a focus of Matthew’s Parable of the Banquet: where Matthew has the Lord direct his servants to invite “anyone,” Luke instead has the Lord first say “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” and only then when all have come in, to go invite whoever is left: cf. Luke 14:15-25 and Matthew 22:1-14. It therefore would actually make no sense for Luke to suddenly throw in the self-defeating qualifier “poor in spirit” when the time came to have Jesus preach the point, and every sense for Luke to prefer the more direct statement of simply “the poor.” That is entirely in keeping with his entire practice and intent, multiply evidenced all throughout his Gospel.

What this “evidence-based method” leaves out is a reason for Luke to feel so strongly about that that he would completely change the meaning of the statement that he is copying from Matthew to mean what it doesn’t mean.  My theory above works perfectly well with this analysis, so Carrier is left asserting that Luke is dishonest and could not have found the phrase he liked better in one of the other sources that we know were available to him and that he obviously used.  Moreover, Carrier even in this post comments that you need to consider alternate theories as well to see if they are more probably, and that’s what he doesn’t do here.  How likely is it that Matthew and Luke could have seen the same phrase in a common source and that Matthew would have changed it from “poor” to “poor in spirit”.  Note that by Carrier’s own analysis Matthew talks about the poor even less than Mark does — Luke is obviously way ahead — and so it actually looks like Matthew doesn’t want to focus on the poor, and so might be willing to interpret it as “poor in spirit” and so add those words whereas Luke clearly wouldn’t because it fits with this theology.  And then we’d also need to consider that they used different sources that had the same story but already had the alterations and so they went with the only source they had and had no contradiction to resolve.  So there are a lot more possibilities here than Carrier considers, and Luke simply changing it doesn’t seem to be the more reasonable one.

Especially since the reason for Luke to just change it is, well, not all that plausible:

(And for those who might wonder why this is so much a focus of Luke, I’d call attention to his declared upper-class audience in his preface, and as evinced by his more florid and elite style and even genre of composition: Luke is deliberately writing to wealthy members of the church, and thus is taking the opportunity to really drive home the point he most wants to make to them. Hence you’ll see that theme continued in Acts.)

If Luke is writing for an upper-class audience, then it would seem that he’d want to avoid the redaction and use “poor in spirit” here, because he would like to have a way to avoid completely excluding his audience from these blessings.  So if he redacted it, it’s not because of his audience, but likely because he believed that Jesus’ message really did focus that much on the poor.  And that impression had to come from his sources.  And any source that really promoted that would itself be likely to have redacted “poor in spirit” to “poor”, so Luke wouldn’t have had to change it at all.  And even if Luke used Matthew as a source, he’d still be able to appeal to those sources to justify the change.  So there is no reason to think that Luke simply changed it on his own, and even if he did he likely did it on the basis of themes established in the other sources that we know he had to have used.

As I go through these arguments, I become more and more convinced that the Gospel writers used their own oral histories and threads, that those threads might have been in common, that some of them followed more threads than the others, and that Luke likely followed more threads than the others (and John probably only followed one specific thread).  This makes a specific Q unnecessary, but also makes Luke actually using Matthew unnecessary as well.  And Carrier’s arguments, as noted, aren’t doing anything to shake that conviction of mine, and I don’t find my logic — or the logic of Q proponents — any more backwards or unempirical than his is.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Women

January 28, 2022

The last thing I’m going to directly talk about in Pearce’s examination of the Resurrection is the story of the women who came to the tomb and saw the risen Jesus.  Pearce explicitly calls out the differences in the women who came to the tomb as being impossible to reconcile:

Theists like to dismiss the contradictions here as being harmonisable or not at all important.  Personally, I don’t see them as harmonisable.  John is very clear in stating one woman and you would have to really want to achieve an agenda to translate that as “at least one woman, Mary”…

Pearce also relies heavily on the idea that this sort of numbering is a crucial contradiction that you cannot reconcile by saying that focusing on one out of the entire number doesn’t preclude there being more people that are not mentioned.  In talking about the angels at the tomb, he says:

Imagine going through life thinking like this:  That every time you gave a numerical answer, you could actually be referring to any number above the actual quantity referenced.  This was one of the first, simple contradiction arguments I got into when I first started arguing about Christianity and the Bible.  It was precisely this sort of rationalisation that opened to my eyes to what I saw as people being dishonest with themselves.  If you are the sort of person who can convince yourself with this type of argument, then we probably shouldn’t be talking.  You are probably convincing yourself of an awful lot of other nonsense that you really shouldn’t believe (Young Earth Creationism is a prime example).

Or, cognitive dissonance isn’t just an issue for Jesus’ early disciples; it remains equally problematic for his modern-day followers.

Strong words, and since I find these numbers arguments utterly unconvincing and unimportant it would imply that I shouldn’t be talking to Pearce, have a mindset that should convince me of Young Earth Creationism when I’m not one, and that I’m afflicted by cognitive dissonance because I don’t find Pearce’s purported contradiction at all convincing.  I suspect that I could reply directly to his words above as “Them’s fightin’ words” [grin].

Okay, so let me start by saying that he is characterizing the argument or attitude wrong.  The counter is not that whenever you say or come across a statement that gives a number you should assume that it could be any number up to infinity instead of what was said.  Provisionally, you should accept that the number in the account is an accurate one if you have no reason to think that it number might be different.  But Pearce here is not talking about a simple listing of a number, but instead is pointing to different accounts and saying that their use of a different number — either directly or, more commonly, implied — is a contradiction that means that the story cannot be believed, and the response is that especially in the implied cases you can reconcile the two cases by noting that as long as nothing in the account with the lower number is directly contradicted by there being more people then those people might have been there and just not something that the first account focused on or bothered to mention.  So this is what Pearce is opposing and what he says cannot be reconciled in any reasonable way.

Let me demonstrate that that sort of situation is actually reasonable in general by using this discussion:

Defense Attorney:  So, what happened when my client approach your teller window?
Teller:  He pointed a gun at my face and demanded that I give him all the money from my station.
Defense Attorney:  Ah-HA!  But it has been established that he actually pointed two guns at your face!  Your account cannot be reconciled with that clear fact, so therefore you are lying and my client is innocent!

Now, of course, in this case we can easily see that it’s ridiculous to dismiss their testimony or their account or the various accounts because of a difference in numbers.  The important things in the account are not in question, which are that the robber threatened to shoot the teller if they didn’t hand over the money.  Whether the robber was using one or two guns doesn’t change the fact that there was at least one gun which was used to threaten the teller and commit the crime.  And in general this is indeed how we handle numbers.  If I say that my manager was at the meeting and someone else says in a separate telling that another designer was also at the meeting, we don’t conclude that one of us is lying about who was at the meeting but instead conclude that both of them were at the meeting and that I didn’t note the designer’s presence in my telling of the story.  So, in general, in cases where the numbers don’t align we do, in fact, simply expand the total numbers to include the highest number, which is exactly the argument that’s being made and is exactly the argument that Pearce, for some odd reason, thinks we never make and can never make reasonably.

Now, of course, there are cases where we won’t make that expansion, and there are two main ones.  The first case is when there’s a direct contradiction in the two tales.  So if I had said that I had a one-on-one with my manager and someone else said that that designer was there, then one of us would have to be mistaken because a one-on-one meeting only has one designer and one manager except under exceptionally strange circumstances that would have been mentioned in my story.  The second case is where there isn’t a direct contradiction, but where it would seem reasonable that the person with the lower number would have mentioned the other people in their story and so we wouldn’t have had the discrepancy.  So what we need to do to dismiss this argument is not merely point out that the numbers don’t match, but instead point out that either the accounts have a real and direct contradiction in them that means that they can’t all be correct, or else that the other authors would have mentioned the other people if they were really there.

So let’s look at what they say (as per Pearce’s summary on page 210).  Luke’s account cannot contradict any of the other accounts, because all he says is that the women who came with him went.  Pearce translates this as being at least four, but since Luke isn’t specific about who it was it is indeed possible that some of the women who came with Jesus out of Galilee didn’t go, or that they did in fact all go and the others didn’t mention them (like saying that the group from work went to a pizza party at the park does not mean that I necessarily attended or that someone from another group who had left the group a short time before didn’t go).  Mark mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.  Matthew leaves out Salome, but again he might just have left out Salome — or, rather, the stories that he followed didn’t mention her — since she isn’t a key character in the story.  This actually has interesting implications, since if Matthew used Mark as a source as most claim then it seems quite likely that Matthew would have seen Mark’s reference to Salome and yet still deliberately left it out, which would suggest that the traditions he was following suggested to him that Mark’s adding of her wasn’t credible or wasn’t important.  And if this taken to be an actual difference in the accounts, a minor difference like this, as I’ve argued before, is not an important enough contradiction to worry about, as Mark could be wrong that she was there or Matthew could be wrong to have excluded her and no matter which of these we chose nothing important would change.

So that leaves John, who only includes Mary Magdalene.  But from the stories, Mary Magdalene was closer to the apostles and it is reasonable that she was the one who went and told them about the empty tomb.  Mark’s claim that none of them told anyone about it is obviously not correct, and is likely him following traditions that didn’t come up with a credible idea for who went and told the apostles, so he left it out.  John, being seen as an account of a specific disciple, is obviously focused more on their experiences, and so it is entirely reasonable that it would only have mentioned the one who went to the disciples and told them about the empty tomb.  So Mark may well be correct that some of the women didn’t tell anyone but misses that one of them did — which, again, must be true for the story to be known — and from John’s account that doesn’t mention that anyone didn’t tell the disciples but only mentions Mary Magdalene she was probably the one who went to tell them.

(As an aside, the comment about them wondering who will help them move the boulder is probably an addition in Mark but not something he made up.  In the oral histories, someone would have likely asked at some point how they expected to move the boulder on their own and that is a lampshade of the issue, which then would have stayed in the story for its dramatic effect.  But it is likely the case that they would have made arrangements to get the boulder moved or had a plan for it).

Anyway, from this it seems like we have a pretty easy way to reconcile all the stories.  Even just using the specific texts there’s no interesting contradiction there and it’s easy to reconcile them, even before a deeper analysis of what each author was doing in their accounts.  So, again, I don’t see why this is something that is at all worth worrying about.  But Pearce thinks this can’t be harmonized, and thinks that arguments that expand the numbers to the largest one that makes sense and doesn’t cause a contradiction are obviously bad arguments that cannot be at all countenanced.  And I admit that I absolutely cannot see why, and would need more than an accusation of “Cognitive Dissonance!” to accept that he’s right and I’m wrong.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Guards!

January 14, 2022

Let me return to looking at Jonathan MS Pearce’s criticisms of the Resurrection, this time looking at a chapter where he talks about guards on Jesus’ tomb, that only appear in Matthew.  Surprisingly — or, I guess, not so surprisingly given that there’s enough content there to talk about it — the argument that it only appears in Matthew is only a minor argument given against it, and so a lot of time is spent on other arguments.  I’m actually going to have to quote from a book directly here, which frequent leaders will recall that I rarely do.  However, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that those arguments are particularly good, because obviously I could summarize good arguments but would need to directly quote poor arguments to make sure that everyone can see what I’m replying to in order to make sure that I’m treating the arguments fairly.  So the arguments that I will quote are not all that great.

Let me start, though, by quoting the relevant section, Matthew 27: 62 – 66 from the New International Version (which differs from Pearce’s, but I’ll get into that later):

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

The first thing to talk about is an argument that was given by the Alethian Worldview that Pearce thinks is a really good argument.  I’ll quote the argument as Pearce quotes it (pg 184):

They’re too late!  Jesus’ body has already been unguarded all night.  Considering that one of the things that Jesus was executed for was his relaxed attitude towards Sabbath prohibitions, there has been ample opportunity for some small group of unnamed disciples to get to the unguarded tomb, remove the body, and get away before the Sanhedrin even asked for a guard.  Even if they had posted a belated guard, once the body was gone their excuse would be “disciples took it before we got there” not “disciples took it while we were sleeping on the job”.  Matthew screwed up again.

It’s just not a plausible story.  We know it’s intended to deny that disciples took the body, because that’s what Matthew tells us it “proves”.  And as a form of denial, it’s psychologically effective for believers.

As reliable history, though, it really sucks.

I will say that I had a temptation to be really snarky that I was indeed going to resist but that also has been tamped down by the fact that the quote does actually manage to in some way catch the really simple counter to their argument, but not in a way that recognizes how devastating a claim that is:  the idea that the Sanhedrin would, in fact, obviously check to see if the body was in the tomb before posting a guard there.  So let me posit this sequence:  they didn’t think of this the night before, but the next morning either remembered or, more likely, heard people talking about the possibility that Jesus’ words might be taken to suggest that Jesus was going to be raised from the dead after three days and they decided that they wanted to preclude that from happening.  So they’d go to arrange for guards and as part of that check to see if the tomb was empty.  For the first part of the quote, that’s not considered, but the article does hint at that by saying that if the tomb was empty they would have said that it was empty then instead of saying that their guards fell asleep while it was stolen.  But even this is prompting a temptation to snark because there’s an obvious answer to this:  the tomb wasn’t empty then.  Because if it was empty then surely they wouldn’t have posted a guard for the next couple of days, but would have immediately said that the tomb was empty and accused the disciples of stealing the body.  Remember, as stated what they are worried about is the claim that Jesus rose from the dead after three days, and if the body is missing on Day 1 then it couldn’t have been raised after three days, and an accusation that the disciples stole the body would have much more force on Day 1 when it a) could have been checked by people and b) when it being missing there would not fulfill the prophecy than on Day 3 when even people who would verify it would have to wonder if it was really stolen or if the authorities were lying and saying it was stolen just to try to hide the fact that this miracle occurred.  Which, in fact, is exactly what Matthew accuses them of:  bribing the guards and promoting the idea that the disciples stole the body.  Which, of course, they wouldn’t have to do if they could produce the body.

The next thing to talk about is Pearce’s attempt to discuss how the argument about the guards likely entered the debate in the first place, using this invented dialogue:

Christian:  Jesus resurrected from his tomb.
Jew:  No, he didn’t.  Anyway, how do you know his body didn’t get stolen — this is a more probable explanation.
C: … Um, aah, because there were guards outside the tomb on the insistence of the Pharisees.
J:  Okay, but what if the guards were asleep?
C:  The guards were not asleep.
J:  How do you know?
C:  We know because they saw it.
J:  But why didn’t they tell anyone?  Why is this not known everywhere since this is the Resurrection of the Messiah?
C:  Because the guards told their superiors and were bribed to keep silent and then disappeared.
J:  That’s … suspiciously convenient.

The thing I noticed on writing all of this down was that J really, really seems to be trying desperately to come up with any reason to reject the idea.  I mean, when it is raised that there were guards their reply is to say, without any reason, that the guards might have been sleeping and so were not, in fact, actually doing the one job that they were to do and that they were trained to do.  Pearce later talks about how guards who fell asleep on the job were harshly punished as a reason to claim that the guards wouldn’t have accepted a bribe to say that they fell asleep, so it’s also not that likely that they actually would have fallen asleep.  So no one could just toss that out as a reply to an argument that there were guards.

Which reveals the flaw in this entire chain:  each step in the dialogue assumes that J actually accepts the arguments presented by C before moving on to the next one.  But why would J do that if it was just being asserted at the time the criticism was being made?  If the idea of an empty tomb was just being raised to head off a comment that C doesn’t know if Jesus was really raised from the dead and that his body might indeed still exist, then the dialogue should have stopped at J’s first line with “No, he didn’t”.  So what this means, then, is that if the response of “The body was stolen” was being commonly raised, it had to be the case that the empty tomb was already a part of the Christian narrative.  Thus, if J was simply saying “No, it wasn’t” C would be replying with “Then how do you explain the empty tomb?  That’s been a part of the histories since the beginning!”, forcing the move to “It was stolen!”.

But there’s another interesting wrinkle here, which is about the guards themselves, because the same reasoning applies.  Why wouldn’t the critic simply say in response to “There were guards!” that C has no reason to think that there ever were any kind of guards on the tomb?  By the same reasoning as above, then, it could be implied that there already was a narrative in many of the histories that there were guards and they were sleeping on the job, justifying a claim that the body was stolen by the disciples.  This, in fact, is what Matthew asserts:  there was an empty tomb and the Sanhedrin spread a story that the disciples had stolen the body while the guards they had posted there were asleep.  The chain of arguments that Pearce himself outlines makes far more sense if this narrative was already part of Christian lore — although perhaps not universal — and so the critic can only appeal to the “asleep” narrative to counter it instead of simply rejecting it wholesale.

Pearce raises the issue that this is only mentioned in Matthew and not in the other accounts.  However, there is an explanation for that:  it’s not that important to the other accounts and so they don’t bother to mention it.  As per my assessment, Mark is minimalist and so won’t talk about things that are not universal, and this account may not be (as it might only be mostly referenced in debates between Christians and Jews), John is disciple-focused and so wouldn’t find these details that necessary, and Luke is appealing to non-Jews and so again doesn’t have to care that much about a story about the specific Jewish politics here.  Moreover, none of the ones who talk about Jesus appearing after being resurrected — Mark is left out here by Pearce’s previous notes that Mark in his original work, at least, doesn’t have such events — actually need to address the “body was stolen” argument, because they can say that the appearances prove that Jesus was resurrected and so get from there to “and so the tomb must be empty”.  Matthew, noted as writing for a Jewish audience, is the only one who would need to address that and relate that story if that was a common counter among Jewish skeptics.

Another minor point that Pearce raises is that if the guards were paid off to claim that they were sleeping, how can we know about it?  This is a rather poor argument, as anyone who knows anything knows that if you pay someone off that really doesn’t mean that they won’t mention it to anyone else ever again.  It’s entirely plausible that one of them was talking to a Christian at some point, or got drunk one night, and happened to spill the real story.  The official — and their sworn — testimony would be that they were sleeping, and so if rumours get out that something miraculous happened it can still be rebutted with the official testimony — if the Sanhedrin were considered reliable.  This is another reason why the “It’s too late!” argument fails, because the Sanhedrin’s account would be less trustworthy if it came after the three days and so as a weak rebuttal to “He is risen!” than if it came on the first day with a “Don’t let them fool you!” rebuttal.

But there is a point that is more of a concern, and I was originally relying on my memory — which is really quite good — and thought it a very poor argument until I tried to gather up the quotes and found that things are a lot more complicated than I thought.  The point is:  given that being asleep on the job is a terrible crime for a soldier, if these were Roman soldiers why in the world would they being willing to accept even a bribe from the Sanhedrin to make a public statement that they were?  The Sanhedrin couldn’t forgive them their crime, and the Romans were known to punish that harshly.  What in the world could the Sanhedrin offer to make that in any way appealing to them?

Now, why I thought this was a very poor argument is that in my recollections from Sunday Mass — and I was a voracious reader so I would in general take the complete edition and read all the Gospels for all masses week over week — was that the guards weren’t Roman.  My impression was that the Sanhedrin came to Pilate and asked for a guard, and Pilate told them that they had their own guards and so if they wanted the body guarded to do it themselves.  In the quote I gave above, it really sounds more like Pilate did say for them to take one of his guards, making the guard Roman.  In Pearce’s quote, it says this “”You have a guard”, which is a lot more vague, at least in English (it could mean that you have a guard already and to use it, or a really, really awkward way to say “Take my guards”).  In the Revised Standard Version, it says this  “You have a guard of soldiers”, which is equally vague.  In looking up the issue, I came across this site, which assumes that the guards were Roman and argues that Pilate was as concerned about the possibility as they were.

Given what I’ve talked about earlier, I don’t find the idea that Pilate was overly concerned about the potential for fraud here all that compelling, and it doesn’t seem to line up well with the other accounts with Pilate not thinking that Jesus had done anything wrong.  So if Pilate gave guards to guard the tomb, it likely was just to get them out of his hair.  This is why I also find it far more probable that the Sanhedrin used their own guards rather than Roman guards, which would make Pearce’s objections moot (as Sanhedrin guards have a lot of reasons to go along with what their superiors have said).  I do agree that it’s an issue that Roman guards would claim that they were asleep at the time unless their superiors put them up to it, and there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the Romans to do that and care at all about this minor religious spat.  So I will agree with Pearce that there is a bit of an issue here.  Again, I prefer the idea that the guards were Sanhedrin guards since it seems to fit with almost everything except the specific words used there, which could be distorted.  But because of that I can’t claim my explanation is the better sourced.

That being said, it’s not a big issue for Christians because of what I said above:  if Jesus made bodily apparitions, then He was resurrected and the idea that the body was stolen cannot get off the ground.  So we could indeed drop that story without impacting how reasonable a Christian is in believing that Jesus was resurrected.

Hume On Miracles Being Saved By Bayesian Epistemology?

January 7, 2022

Commenter Tom asked me to look at Richard Carrier’s latest post on consciousness, and I do indeed intend to look at it at some point (it may take me a few weeks to get around to it), but today I want to go way, way back to a post of Carrier’s that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while and didn’t get around to until now, which is about Carrier looking at an attempt by someone called TMM to rescue David Hume’s argument against miracles against a semi-Bayesian analysis raised against it by William Craig.  Now, I’m not a fan of Hume’s argument against miracles and not a fan of Bayesian epistemology, so of course I’m going to be highly skeptical of an attempt to save Hume using a Bayesian approach.  And in reading this I think I’ve only become more convinced that Bayesian epistemology is not a good approach towards forming beliefs and justifying knowledge.

Let me start by outlining what Hume’s argument basically is, and in so doing I’ll probably end up showing why Carrier’s defense of it simply cannot work.  Hume’s basic argument is that for a miracle to be considered a miracle, it would have to be an enormous violation of the natural laws in such a way that no natural explanation is possible.  But, then, such an event would be wildly improbable.  So if we are considering whether or not a miracle has occurred on the basis of someone’s personal testimony, we have to ask if the probability that the person is lying is higher than the probability that a miracle occurred and they are telling the truth.  Hume argues that given how improbable a miracle must be by definition, it will always be the case that the probability that the person is simply lying is higher than the probability that a miracle actually occurred, no matter how reliable one thinks the testimony might be.  So at a minimum, one could never believe that a miracle occurred on the basis of the testimony of one person, no matter how reliable that person might be.

But the key to Hume’s argument here is that it isn’t an empirical argument.  He isn’t saying that in practice miracles, when examined, turn out to be more improbable than the testimony used to support them.  He isn’t saying that the miracles we’ve tested have never worked out and so we have no reason to think any new claims will work out and so from that we know that the testimony of an individual will not be sufficient to demonstrate it.  He’s not making a claim about any specific miracle (the Resurrection is specifically examined in the post and references, but from what I recall Hume’s argument is not specific to the Resurrection in any way and doesn’t make any references to it) that we’ve examined.  He is saying that a miracle, by definition, is an event that by necessity is so improbable that it would be more likely that the person is lying than that the event actually occurred … and most importantly, that if that wasn’t true it wouldn’t really be a miracle.

Carrier wants to insist that if we apply a proper Bayesian analysis to Hume we can “fix” the argument so that it’s actually correct.  However, in order to preserve anything of Hume at all he’s going to have to maintain the idea that miracles are improbable by definition and so things that it would not be possible to have occurred by any naturalistic means.  As we will see, the bulk of Carrier’s defense is entirely going to be him trying to show that naturalistic explanations are always going to be more probable than that it is a miracle done by a god or God, which is indeed something the argument relies on but it is critical for Hume’s argument that for a real miracle that would never be the case.  If naturalistic explanations for the phenomena are in play, then it isn’t a real miracle, and Carrier’s defense of Hume will essentially insist that the purported examples we have will all be best explained by naturalistic explanations, or if supernatural by something that isn’t related to God or gods at all.

Carrier describes the project thusly, in his inimitable style:

Of course it’s already a mistake to conflate Hume’s original Argument Against Miracles with a proper Bayesian argument against miracles, because though Hume was getting close to the same insights posthumously published by his contemporary Thomas Bayes, Hume’s argument against miracles isn’t fully Bayesian. He might not have even been aware of Bayes’ Theorem at the time. And yet his argument’s flaws are fully corrected when it is reformulated in a proper Bayesian form, as proved by John Earman in Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles, which Christian apologists will sometimes cite as having proved Hume’s argument fails—because they only read the title of the book and think that’s what it’s about, when in fact it does exactly the opposite: Earman actually restores Hume’s argument using Bayes’ Theorem. Hume’s “abject failure” was merely failing to arrive at the Bayesian structure he should have used; but once one gets there, Hume’s argument becomes pretty much unassailable (just not, exactly, in the form Hume intended). That’s Earman’s actual thesis; and he’s right. (Sorry, Christian apologists. Wah, wah.)

This will be some trick, because as I will probably outline in more detail as this post progresses my main objection is not one that can be solved by the Bayesian structure, because it essentially is that using probabilities and doing the math in that way is the wrong approach to take here, and that in order to make Hume’s argument work what you have to do is overturn all of the epistemic standards that we could use to determine if testimony is reliable at all in order to deny the truth of a proposition that you don’t want to believe is true, which is never a good approach to knowledge.  So the claim that it will be “unassailable” is, well, a rather strong claim to make.

So let’s start looking at his defense of it.  The first thing he’s going to do is argue against TMM’s claim that the probability of a miracle is incalculable and so we could never demonstrate that a miracle occurred.  Carrier thinks that we can indeed calculate what that is and spends a long, long section trying to do just that.  Now the issue with this from the beginning is that if we could easily calculate the real probability of any specific miracle we wouldn’t need to care about the priors at all, and wouldn’t need any generic idea or general argument about miracles.  As I’ve noted in the past when it comes to naturalism vs supernaturalism, if we really wanted to do things on the basis of probabilities we could simply drop the distinction and assess the probabilities of each option independently, without having to lump them into a category.  If the evidence really supports the natural explanations better all of the time, then we shouldn’t need to talk about “supernatural” explanations at all before considering what might be true, and we should always come to the natural explanation.  Here, the problem is even worse because Carrier is trying to compare non-miracle explanations to miracle explanations as if they are comparable.  But if the other explanations were in play, then in general, by definition, we’d have no reason to think that a miracle actually happened at all and wouldn’t be considering it as a miracle.  So Carrier is going to need to preserve some reason to think that we are stuck with a choice between accepting the event as a miracle or else arguing that their testimony or evidence is unreliable.  So to be comparable to Hume’s argument we must be in the situation where by the evidence we have we’d have to accept that we had a miracle, if the evidence is reliable.  And Hume’s argument is that the evidence being unreliable, by strict probabilities, is always more likely than that a miracle actually occurred, by definition.  Carrier’s examples, then, of preferring natural explanations to miracle explanations aren’t going to be relevant to the case that Hume is talking about.

Carrier uses a lottery example to refute TMM:

For example, the physical probability that I won the California State Lottery today may be a million to one against; but the epistemic probability that I did could be nearly 100%. Because the truth of the statement “I won the California State Lottery today” is a function of the evidence for that having happened, which can be such as to increase the probability that it did happen quite enormously—easily well above that million to one odds. That’s why we routinely believe lottery winners won. We don’t go around saying to every reported winner of the lottery, “That’s too improbable; so clearly you didn’t really win the lottery.” It would depend on what evidence there is.

The thing is, I think that Carrier explained this better elsewhere, where he pointed out that while it’s wildly improbable that a particular person might win the lottery, we know that someone did, and so we’re justified in believing someone that we think is reliable and who has no reason to lie to us when they say that they did, unless we have reason to think that they didn’t.  But the more interesting move is that he says that it depends on what the evidence is.  First, Hume’s argument is, for the most part, evidence independent.  Second, Carrier will spend the entire post trying desperately to find ways to dodge ever having to consider any specific evidence or claims for any miracle, despite referencing a specific one for the entire post.

Carrier says that the first thing to do is find the upper and lower bound, at least, on whether any miracle claim can be true.  He starts from an empirical argument, that is somewhat confusingly stated:

Translated into present terms: the prior probability of a miracle claim being true equals one more than the number of miracle claims that have been proved true, divided by two more than the number of miracle claims ever reliably tested.

And yes, tested claims. It can’t be “claims ever made,” because you don’t know of those claims whether they were true or false, so their numbers can’t be assessed; we can only assess reliably vetted miracle claims. Which means if, for example, only a million miracle claims have been properly vetted in human history, and no other information applies (again, more on that qualifier in a moment), then you simply don’t have enough information to claim the base rate of miracles is below 1/1,000,002 (or 0.0000999998%), because it’s not credible that there have been more than a million miracle claims vetted to date (if you were to try gathering examples to comprise your evidence-base, you will quickly see the number you would end up with after a complete survey won’t be that high). So any evidence that presents us a likelihood ratio of more than 1,000,002/1 will lead to a single confirmed case of a miracle being more likely true than false. Yes, that’s all it would take. Given the caveats.

So he uses a very, very small probability and then says “Yes, that’s all it would take” as if that was something that it would be easy to overcome, when a 1 in a million chance would be pretty slim.  But Carrier is trying to do two things here.  The first is to show that the probability of a miracle is indeed calculable, to refute TMM.  The second is shown by that last italicized statement, which is to show that when we consider all the relevant information and priors the probability of a miracle is still incredibly low.  So he wants to start with a “higher” probability, and work down to much lower probabilities to show that it’s calculable and incredibly low.

Even Christian apologists have been willing to grant the probability of a miracle could be as low as 1 in 10^40, for example, which is surely still many orders of magnitude higher than a spontaneous quantum probability, but that’s okay, because they are theorizing something more organized than that is happening, which would indeed be more probable—if that “something” existed, which becomes a question of epistemic probability, which will typically be higher than a physical probability when you have evidence. Obviously, as every new physics has not had to pass a hurdle of improbability of anywhere near as low as 1 in 10^40. So 1 in 10^40 is surely a lower-bound probability of a miracle. It might not be the probability of exactly the agent miraculists insist is responsible (they don’t understand that that is actually fantastically less probable than a far less impressive agent). But still. We are only here asking about the probability of “a miracle,” not of a specific Being causing it.

Once we start talking the latter, things get way worse for the apologist (see John Loftus, “Christianity Is Wildly Improbable,” in The End of Christianity, combined with my discussion in The Argument from Specified Complexity against Supernaturalism). Which is generally why apologists want to talk about “merely” the probability of a miracle occurring. They want to fallaciously leverage that into “my exact specific God therefore exists,” which is a non sequitur. But we all know that. They aren’t actually doing science here; thus they aren’t really formulating a causal model and then testing it. They are just using the rhetoric of (hand wave have wave hand wave) “a miracle happened” therefore (hand wave have wave hand wave) “my God exists.” I don’t fall for that. But to illustrate my point about miracles in general I will skip the latter part and just focus on the former: that “a miracle happened,” regardless of what caused it.

We can already see Carrier here dropping out the specific claims and focusing on making some kind of general case, which is why he makes the point that apologists don’t get that positing a more impressive agent makes the probability of that agent existing less than if they posited a less impressive agent.  But the reason apologists like to use a very powerful agent as an example is that they want to eliminate other possibilities by claiming that if the event actually happened then it’s only that powerful an agent that could do it.  This would eliminate all naturalistic explanations and all more minor gods.  So if they could demonstrate that if the event occurred it could only be done by that impressive a god, then that less impressive gods are arguably more likely than more impressive ones isn’t relevant to the discussion, because less impressive ones couldn’t do it.  The ideal for the apologist is to bring things down to the very choice outlined above:  either God did it or it didn’t happen.  So Carrier talking about lesser gods being more probable misses the point of the move, which is why he will then try to go on and simply talk about a miracle happening in general and ignoring the specifics of the usual claims.

Carrier then starts trying to define miracles as “magic” and then talking about what most people think the term “magic” means:

Contrary to apologetic efforts to redefine magic in ways less embarrassing to their primitive superstitions, “magic” in everyday discourse actually just refers to any effect brought about directly by an intelligent will in some degree—like wishing, making it so. Magic in this sense might involve component rituals and procedures (magic words, binding demons, enchanted objects, or whatever) or not (“gods” are typically imagined to not require any), but ultimately, either way, there will be no physical causal model that connects the desired effect with the actual outcome. If there was, it would then be just another technology.

This is a rather odd definition of magic, especially when he contrasts it with “technology” at the end when talking about there being no physical causal model that connects the two.  If we limit it to any effect brought about by an intelligent will, then that would seem to make choosing to raise my arm or even to type magic, as it’s an effect directly brought about by an intelligent will.  When he talks about the physical causal model, then we can say that there is a physical causal model from the brain to the arm that explains this.  But then this doesn’t seem to count as a technology at all, but an innate physical ability that beings with brains and arms have.  So if we can eliminate the idea that it has to be a technology — the reason Carrier mentions that is because of an example he wants to use later — then it seems like we could consider most forms of magic or sorcery a similar kind of innate physical ability.  For the most part, as Carrier notes, the sorcery type of magic involves either tapping into existing physical fields — think of the Force from Star Wars — or associating with beings that have innate abilities to modify the physical world.  Carrier could argue that that sort of magic would be opposed to physics, which is a standard view of magic, and so wouldn’t be physical.  However, again ideas like the Force seem like they could fit in that model, and so it would seem that we could have innate abilities that could do the things that “magic” is claimed to do but that would be able to fit into reasonable rules, such as, say, an entity that can absorb and release energy and transform it which could be entirely physical and in line with physics but could be something that normal humans couldn’t do.

Now, Carrier will certainly argue that such a thing would be physical and naturalistic and so wouldn’t apply to gods, which are explicitly not.  But what we can note here is that the Christian God, at least, is claimed to have created the entire universe and all the laws of physics, and so it would seem reasonable to think that He would have an innate ability to suspend those laws whenever He wanted to.  So then that “magic” wouldn’t be in any way abnormal or unreasonable, and Carrier insisting that it would be improbable or impossible would be the same as a species born blind insisting that it was impossible that the beings that are claimed to be able to see could exist because they could do that seeing thing that it is impossible for them to do.  So given that we can make a miracle an innate ability of the right kind of god, there seems to be little reason for Carrier to call it “magic” and associate it with something like sorcery.  And again, as we shall see, the reason Carrier wants to do that is so he can compare it to that kind of thing in general instead of considering a divine miracle specifically in its own terms.

So let’s start with his example from “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, which is where we start to see the seams come apart in his argument:

Let’s start with something just short of magic. We’ll take a famous fictional example to illustrate: the resurrection of Klaatu in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. The original script simply had his ship’s technology resurrect him; the Christian-controlled Hays Commission compelled the producers to not allow that and instead insert a line that only God can do that. We now know the original script was right: suitably advanced, perfectly natural machinery could reverse the entropy in a corpse and restore it to life (hence Clarke’s Laws). The only question is whether such machinery is present and applied. This amounts to the same question for magic, only instead of “the requisite machinery,” we are asking about “the requisite magical agent.” But start with the question of “is the machinery present.” If the sequence of events depicted in that film were real, would the Earthling Helen be forced to deny what she’d seen—and insist Klaatu must never have really been dead and just faking his wounds? Of course not. She has by that point been presented ample evidence that these people have absurdly advanced technologies and are now employing them to effect a resurrection, and just did so before her eyes. There is a nonzero probability everything was faked; but it’s extremely improbable. Importantly, it’s far less probable than that what she is seeing is all not real. And even more importantly, that’s so much less probable as to reverse any prior probability against it. Which means the probability against it cannot have been 1 in 10^40. In no way is the evidence she has 10^40 times more likely on it all being real than it all being fake. And we intuitively know it doesn’t have to be. We would agree we’d be rightly convinced by such evidence even if it were only thousands of times more likely on it being real than it being fake. Ergo the prior has to be no more than thousands to one against.

The first problem here is that we aren’t at all that certain that you could indeed build a machine to reduce entropy and bring a body back to life.  We have a loose theory that the cause of death is entropy and that if it could be reversed we might be able to bring a dead body back to life, but that’s far from being able to say that we know that a sufficiently advanced technology could actually do it.  Moreover, Carrier as noted talks a lot about priors, and we don’t even know that aliens could actually get here from another planet or galaxy in a reasonable amount of time, as that would require faster than light travel and currently physics considers that to be impossible.  So if we were going by priors and it wasn’t the case that the alien had been in some kind of suspended animation for likely centuries — especially given that right now we have been able to observe the nearest star systems and noted that they don’t seem to have sufficiently advanced life on them to send such a craft — then we’d have to conclude that it wasn’t an alien at all.  And if we did conclude that it was an alien then the very nature of that trip should have us conclude that he didn’t really die at all, but was simply put into some kind of suspended animation that we know that the alien technology can revive him from.

Okay, it may look like I’m simply inventing explanations for what happened, but it is important for me to do that because this is what Carrier’s approach to miracles is going to be.  If we stick to Carrier’s approach, it seems like we could cast at least significant doubt on the claim that the alien was indeed actually resurrected by advanced technology.  So if we are going to say that she is indeed justified in believing that he was revived from the dead, it’s not going to be on the basis that the probability that he was raised from the dead has overcome the priors sufficiently.  She must have other reasons, then, that provide that justification.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I would assume that the first point is that she’s seen enough odd things from the alien to demonstrate that his technology is far above hers and that he isn’t human.  But that starting point doesn’t get us to justifying what would be the “miraculous” claim that he was from another planet and was revived from the dead.  The priors of that, as already noted, are quite improbable.  What she could rely on, though, was the fact that she thinks that the people who told her that he was dead and that told her that he was revived from the dead were reliable.  She trusts him to tell her the truth when he says that he was revived and thinks that the people who did their utmost to kill him had no reason to lie to her about whether or not they actually did manage to kill him.  So given that she can trust the motives — if not necessarily the honesty — of those who said that they killed him and can trust the honesty and motives of the alien when he says that he was revived and his technology was actually capable of that.  So what we’d have is an example where when we trust the veracity of the person making the claim and believe that it’s possible that the thing they claim did it could do it (in his case, the advanced alien technology he has at his disposal).  So to return this to Hume, we know that God, if God exists, could raise someone from the dead, and if the person making the claim is trustworthy then we also have that ability to believe in their veracity.  So the only way to doubt it is to doubt their expertise:  they are not in a position to be able to judge whether someone was really raised from the dead by God.  This would align with all of the examples of “miracles” that we have so far:  even the most reliable of witnesses aren’t generally in a position to know that the miracle really happened and that God did it.  But note that there the argument is not Hume’s argument that we should prefer the explanation that they are lying over the explanation that it really was a miracle, but is instead an argument that in those cases they could be interpreting what they saw incorrectly or might be mistaken.  So getting to this point will not defend Hume’s argument, but is also the only way to get past the priors in Carrier’s own example.

(Also, what is actually happening in the movie is that she’s trusting what she herself has seen over those past few days, so she has the belief that he’s an alien, a belief that he died, and an experience that nevertheless going into the machine returned him to life.  The whole considerations of priors is entirely ignored in that case, and we would tend to think it rational.  This is also what we see in horror movies where the people who see the progression ignore the priors and simply ultimately trust what their senses are telling them regardless of how improbable it might have seemed to them.  Carrier can argue that this is them letting the new evidence overwhelm the priors, but we have to note that no one does the immense calculations that Carrier does for these cases and we would tend to think that anyone who tried would be overthinking it.  Basically, we just let the evidence wash over us and when we’d have to reject too many beliefs to think it false than think it true we accept it.)

So if Klaatu were a sorcerer instead of a spaceman, and walked out of the invisible feywild to effect the same deeds and mission as depicted in the film, Helen might be justified in suspecting he was really a spaceman secretly using technologies to emulate magic (a la Star Trek’s Ardra), but she would not be justified in concluding everything was being faked (the army surrounding him all crisis actors, his wounds a Penn & Teller routine, and the like). The prior probability that it was really magic would be substantially lower than that it was secretly all technology (see, again, my discussion of the distinction in Defining the Supernatural), because the latter benefits from a lift in base rate by its depending on components that are all established to exist (every technological step in effecting a resurrection existed even in Helen’s time, differing only in respect to various aspects of scale, e.g. the ability to build machines that move objects is just a scaled version of the ability to build machines that move atoms, a point used by Captain Picard to explain to Nuria why he was not a god).

But in order to make this claim, she would have to believe that either Klaatu didn’t really know by what means he was doing the things he did, or else that he was lying to her when he said that he was a sorcerer and using technology to deceive her.  But as far as she knew he had no motive to do that and if she had to believe him dishonest without being able to find a motive for him lying then she’d have to distrust pretty much anything he told her.  If she trusts Klaatu and believes what he tells her and has no other reason to doubt his claim, then the prior that technology is more likely than sorcery, it seems, is irrelevant.  She is indeed thrust into the position of considering what he is doing sorcery or considering that he must be deceiving her.  But the only reason for her to reject what he’s saying is that she doesn’t believe in sorcery, and so she’d be using the claim that it must be some kind of advanced technology as nothing more than a way to dodge the implication that sorcery exists that she would, for some reason, simply not want to accept.

This, then, is the issue with Hume’s argument in a nutshell:  appealing to a prior probability to consider that someone is lying about what they told you is nothing more than an attempt to dodge implications of the evidence you have that you don’t like.  That’s not what people like Carrier are going for when they do epistemology.

Carrier finally addresses something directly relevant to the debate over Hume’s argument:

Importantly, Hume never argued that an eyewitness could not be persuaded a miracle happened (a point often missed by apologists attacking Hume). Hume’s point was that miracles could not be believed on a basis of testimony. His point being that the probability the testifier is lying or in error (even if themselves an eyewitness; even more so if they are passing on a story many times removed, though Hume did not depend on the latter to make his point) is always going to be higher than the probability a miracle really occurred (the more so when we include a third alternative cause, that of literary contrivance: miracle stories never intended to be taken as actual historical events, on which see Evan Fales’s thorough epistemic treatment in Reading Sacred Texts, in connection with my article on Establishing the Biblical Literalism of Early Christians). As Hume put it, the testimony would have to be at least as miraculous as the event testified to. And he’s right. Likewise, Hume argues, no human testimony is that reliable; as proved by its embarrassingly high rate of unreliability across history, as anyone can observe. But this simply shifts the question to how improbable would a testimony have to be (on any other explanation of it than that it was correct) for us to believe a miracle testified to really occurred. Multiple independent testimony is especially powerful in this respect (Aviezer Tucker, “The Generation of Knowledge from Multiple Testimonies,” Social Epistemology 2015).

The first issue here is that in general it isn’t the apologists that get confused about that first point, as it’s always my reply that if someone has to conclude that the person giving the testimony is lying in order to reject believing that the miracle happened that argument certainly doesn’t apply to the person giving the testimony, who obviously knows whether they’re lying or not.  This is because many of the atheists who make that argument tend to argue that it’s universally unreasonable to believe in miracles, and so include the person who is giving the testimony in that group.  But, again, if the atheist needs to argue that they are lying in order to make it reasonable for them to reject it, then that’s an argument that doesn’t apply to the person giving the testimony and so who believes that the miracle occurred on that basis.  And while they and Carrier want to appeal in that case to them possibly being mistaken or interpreting it incorrectly or being in a position where they couldn’t really properly observe the miracle, that doesn’t apply to Hume’s argument.  Hume’s argument only applies when it’s the case that based on their testimony a miracle occurred.  Then the person is forced to choose between accepting that a miracle occurred or accepting that the completely reliable person with no motive to lie is lying.  If you could argue that the testimony is second-hand or that the person was not in a position to properly judge it, you wouldn’t bother making a claim about the veracity of the eyewitness … and, in fact, doing so when there was no need to do so would probably be rightly taken as an insult, especially if they were a generally honest person.

So if we consider all the other things that Carrier says we need to take into consideration, we have no need for Hume’s argument and it generally wouldn’t be valid anyway (someone legitimately believing something but being incorrect about it is far more probable than that they are lying about it, especially if they’re generally honest people) so none of that can do anything to save Hume’s argument.

Now we return to magic:

Apologists will chafe at my calling miracles magic, but that’s just their delusional aversion to admitting what things are because it makes them look silly. There is a developed apologetic based on inventing bogus definitions of magic in order to escape this cognitive dissonance, but that is all concertedly bullshit. If I can just think things into existence, that’s magic. It doesn’t become less magic when the person doing that is themselves even more magical, miraculously lacking even a body or limitations of any kind beyond logical necessity. A god is more magical than a sorcerer; not less so.

Well, the problem here — and where Carrier deviates even more from Hume’s argument — is that a miracle, in and of itself, is not magic by definition.  If you could explain a miracle as merely magic — yes, even supernatural magic — then it wouldn’t be a miracle and Hume’s argument wouldn’t apply.  Supernatural magic might violate natural laws, but it would itself be orderly and, if it occurred, would be predictable and something that would be in the capabilities of at least all humans with magical ability.  God is both less and more magical than a sorcerer, to use Carrier’s example.  God is less magical because His nature as defined is such that we know that He’d be capable of performing a miracle, and we don’t know that about humans.  But God is more magical because he’d be capable of doing things that even ordered magic couldn’t do.  Basically, even magic would have limits, and God would not.  So God could do something that couldn’t be done by anything else, and that is what we’d call an unequivocal miracle.

And note that Carrier cannot argue here that we don’t know that God exists and so can’t know that He could do those things, because when we are looking at miracles we are talking about specific gods — and usually God — and so have to consider whether the god we are considering is capable of performing the miracle.  And this would apply to the sorcerer as well, and any other kind of magic or technology posited as the explanation.  So trying to classify what God might do as “magic” doesn’t seem to get us very far, as we have to break things down again to tease out what explanations are possible and which are not.

Carrier then tries to use this notion of magic to posit more “probable” explanations for a miracle:

But we can account it a miracle even if Jesus was raised from the dead by an ordinary sorcerer—even his own sorcery (just as Harry Potter resurrected himself, or could have done). This is of course a problem for the apologist: it is far more probable Jesus used magic to resurrect himself, than that a God did it. Because the “God” hypothesis requires absurdly more numerous and complex suppositions (hence my point in The Argument from Specified Complexity against Supernaturalism); a Christian God, vastly more so (hence Loftus’s point in The End of Christianity). It’s much simpler to posit far less ambitious explanations of the same effect, especially when they have considerable epistemic advantages. For instance, that sorcery exists but gods do not is a better explanation of the vast diversity of miracle claims across religious traditions, because it makes that outcome more probable, whereas a god-hypothesis predicts a far more consistent tradition—without gerrymandering, which only makes the hypothesis less probable, not more so. Even more uncomfortably for Christians, that aliens resurrected Jesus is necessarily more probable than that sorcery did! And since “that sorcery did” is necessarily more probable than that a god did, if Christians really believed their own arguments, they should believe in alien visitors, not gods.

Carrier often accuses his opponents of making stuff up in response to his arguments.  He also tends to get very offended if people accuse Bayesians in general and himself in particular of making stuff up in response to counters.  But here, how can the appeal to alien visitors or sorcery be anything other than making stuff up if we are considering the Resurrection specifically, or even any specific posited Christian miracle?  In claiming that that is more probable and that Christians should think that Jesus was either resurrected by an alien visitor or by some sort of sorcery rather than God, Carrier has to argue that if the Resurrection actually occurred those are more probable than that God did it.  In making that argument, he must place his argument in the context that the events of the Resurrection as described essentially happened that way.  So we’d have to have Jesus as He is generally described, which include that He went around preaching about God and claimed to get His power from God and preached and taught in God’s name, and in the appearances that would prove that Jesus was resurrected said that He was resurrected by God.  Given all of that, we would have to believe that Jesus was lying or at least mistaken about what resurrected Him and about who He was.  If He was lying, then we’d have to find a reason for Him to be lying, which we do not have.  And if He was mistaken, then the only reason we have to claim that He was indeed mistaken is that we think that the other two options are somehow more probable given background knowledge.  That, however, would leave these explanations completely disconnected from the specific evidence about the specific event that we are evaluating.  So ultimately Carrier would end up saying that while he accepts that the event happened roughly as described, he doesn’t like what taking that straight would imply and so he is going to take any other explanation, no matter how much it contradicts the specific details that we have.  Given how many of those details someone would have to ignore or explain away to get to the “sorcerer” or “alien visitor” explanations, Carrier would have to do a lot of inventive interpretation to get something that makes sense in any way whatsoever.

So, essentially, yeah, he’d have to grab some things that he thinks are more reasonable from background knowledge and then spin a wonderful yarn about how the Resurrection could have been done by that thing rather than the thing that everyone claims it was done by.  That’s pretty much the definition of “making stuff up”.

And note that this isn’t at all necessary to defend Hume because Hume does not fall into this trap.  Again, Hume’s argument is not an empirical one that when we work out the probabilities the probability that someone — no matter how reliable they seem — is lying is more probable than that a miracle actually happened.  His argument is that in order to consider something a miracle it would have to be so improbable by its very nature that even the most honest person in the world lying would be more probable than it, or else we have no reason to consider it a miracle.  So in Bayesian terms either it is so improbable given the background knowledge and all the background knowledge that we could have, or else it is not improbable enough given the background knowledge to be considered a miracle.  A miracle, to be a miracle, must be incredibly improbable given the background knowledge, but then that is its own downfall because if it really is that improbable given the background knowledge then even the most improbable alternatives will always be less improbable than it.

So Hume doesn’t need to invent or make anything up to make his case, as Carrier does here.  He would never consider something done by alien visitors or sorcery to be a miracle as Carrier says here because such things simply wouldn’t be improbable enough to be counted as a miracle.  If those are really live options, then we didn’t have a miracle.  Carrier could never save Hume by his approach because his approach involves making miracles “normal” and then arguing based on empirical probabilities, but as noted Hume would never get to that point.  He’d simply say that if we could calculate those sorts of empirical probabilities for the phenomena then we aren’t dealing with something that we could claim to be a miracle.

Now, of course, the issue for Hume here is that the defining trait of a miracle is not that it is incredibly improbable, but that it is incredibly improbable that it happened by a non-divine process.  In practice, this means that it is incredibly improbable that it happened due to our known natural processes or due to the natural processes that we think we might find in the future, but that when we consider processes that are not natural the divine is on top of the list.  This, then, has to include a consideration of the specific evidence including things like potential motivations and what makes sense.  So Carrier’s move has to be to argue that the priors overwhelm any considerations of the specifics of the case.  That doesn’t seem to be at all reasonable, and in fact seems to be a recipe for ignoring any possible evidence that could establish that a miracle has actually occurred and therefore that God exists.

Carrier carries on with this confusion:

But any evidence that was good enough to convince me aliens did it, would certainly lead me to take more seriously the proposal that gods did. It would not alone be enough to sway me to that conclusion; but it would put swaying me to that conclusion within reach. It would just take a certain amount of differential evidence favoring gods over aliens.

But given his analysis, the only evidence that he’d have that would convince him that aliens did it would be the evidence that the event actually happened.  Once he has that, then he’d insist that it’s more likely that aliens did it than that God did it.  Outside of that, what kind of “differential evidence” could he be talking about?  We don’t have any differential evidence outside of the prior favoring gods over aliens in the case of the Resurrection, and all the evidence that we have if we accept the Resurrection event as happening roughly as described is that a God did it.  Carrier will, I assume, protest that he’s just asking for enough evidence to overturn that prior, but we still get into the contradiction of accepting that the event happened roughly as described but having to deny that how people are describing it –as something done by God — is actually how it happened.  At the end of the day, one cannot favour aliens over gods in a miracle like the Resurrection without ignoring the details of the event, but presumably in order to think that it is worth considering that someone actually was resurrected from the dead he’d have to accept that those details were substantively correct.  So he can’t ignore them, and can only argue that the priors overwhelm them.  This will be important later.

To be honest, though, all of this is simply Carrier trying to argue against the idea in Hume and in TMM that by the Bayesian approach one could never get enough evidence to prove that a miracle occurred.  Carrier wants to use this to argue that it could happen in theory, but it’s clear that he doesn’t think that it would ever happen in practice.  However, Hume’s argument that it can’t happen in theory is actually the stronger argument, and so doesn’t need saving from Carrier’s move.  And as we can see from Carrier’s list of possibilities, it’s clear that Carrier thinks that we would never get to the stage where we would even have to consider any kind of alien explanation, let alone any of the supernatural ones, so ultimately even his defense is a bit hollow, because for all practical purposes Carrier is not going to accept that a “miracle” occurred unless it is not possible to find any natural explanation — even if he can’t come up with one at the moment — and so his protestations that we could in theory prove that a miracle occurred or that God existed but simply haven’t found that evidence yet are meaningless since it is entirely unlikely what sort of evidence — if any — could possibly do that for Carrier given the commitments he says here.  After all, he talks about independent observers but that would be of the event, and he’s proven himself willing to ignore the details of what they say to prefer the alien explanation, so what evidence could we ever provide to show that a miracle really was divinely accomplished?

So let’s look at the difference between Carrier and Hume:

That’s why Hume’s point holds not on his own stated terms but in proper Bayesian terms: to get a miracle to be a probable fact (to warrant believing a miracle has occurred), the probability of the testimony to that miracle on all possible alternative causes (e.g. lies, errors, or fictions) has to otherwise be lower than the prior probability of the miracle itself. Here, on a hypothesis of any mere physics-defying magic (gods involved or not), that probability is at least one in a trillion (1 in 10^12). Which means we need testimony that is a trillion times more likely to exist if true than if a product of lies, errors, or fictions. Hume asserted this could never happen, which was his only mistake. One does not need to claim that. Because even though it can happen (we can have testimony that’s as good as that), it just has not yet happened for any miracle to date.

For practical purposes, this is a distinction without a difference.  Because while Carrier insists that we could have testimony that is a trillion times more likely to exist — or, rather, to say what it said, in this case — it’s actually really, really hard to see what sort of evidence that could be.  Carrier would certainly have to deny that we could have testimony that reaches that from only one person — remember, he appeals to multiple independent sources to argue that it’s even possible — which means that for the case that Hume was talking about they would conclude the same thing:  it’s always going to be more reasonable to think that that one witness was lying no matter how reliable they are, how honest they are, and how unlikely it is that they would have any motive to lie than to believe that a miracle occurred.  And to get to the point that it’s only 1 in a trillion, Carrier has to move away from any kind of god and away from the Christian God, which by his own arguments he says would make the probability a lot lower.  So then we can ask Hume’s question of his independent testimony:  could it ever be the case that the probability that a miracle really occurred is higher than the probability that those multiple independent witnesses were not actually independent and so either all participated in a fraud or else copied from one or two people who participated in a fraud?  All you’d have is the argument that you can’t find such a connection, but you’d have to prove that it’s pretty much impossible for there to be such a connection to overcome the sorts of odds that Carrier is talking about.  Which puts him pretty much back in Hume’s camp, with the argument that miracles are so improbable that no testimony or evidence could ever overcome that improbability.  For Hume it was by definition, and the only difference is that for Carrier it’s more for all practical purposes.  But the result is the same:  given what probabilities we know about before even considering a specific case that is posited to be a miracle, we can pretty much dismiss whether it really was one — at least that it’s one involving God — without even considering the specifics of it.  Carrier might want to try to see if the event itself actually occurred, but he’s almost certainly going to conclude that it was really natural or that the people were lying no matter what evidence he has of it, and if it somehow managed to overwhelm him and force him to accept that it was something beyond the pale he’d dismiss it as aliens or sorcery or a minor god.  Given his arguments, then, there is no way to convince him that God actually exists.

(Note that Carrier would protest that those probabilities come from considering the evidence for God and the things that don’t align with it, and so aren’t a priori in any way and are based on considering the actual empirical data.  But a lot of his arguments are based on arguing whether other explanations are more likely than God, which feeds back into the same problematic reasoning that he uses here).

So now let’s look at what TMM was actually talking about, which was William Lane Craig’s argument.  Craig uses a murder trial example, and so it seems like he’s countering with the idea that in a murder trial we could start with a low prior that the husband murdered his wife but as we add evidence that would raise the probability so that we could indeed conclude that the husband murdered his wife.  While I agree with Carrier that this isn’t a great example, Carrier seems to completely miss the point in his response:

First, we actually know husbands murder their wives; in fact we have a known and measured base rate of it and thus can actually identify its prior probability to within fairly reasonable margins of error: it is, horrifyingly, around 1 in 4. That’s right. In the United States, if a married woman is murdered, there’s a 25% chance her husband did it. Before you look at any evidence either way. We have nothing like this for miracles. The number of miracle claims that have been confirmed to be genuine (and not just lies, errors, or edifying fictions), is exactly zero. After thousands of years now. This is more comparable to asking whether “an angel from heaven flew down and murdered his wife.” We have zero cases of that. So that’s starting at quite a low prior, to say the least.

Second, what would it take to prove that in court? Craig opens with a court analogy but then quickly drops that analogy when getting to claims like the resurrection—for which no evidence exists that could even be submitted in court (all that exists is unauthenticated documents; not even any hearsay survives, which requires a living witness to or authenticated record of something an actual witness said; but even that would be rarely admissible). What evidence of any legal quality is there for the resurrection?

It’s a valid complaint to say that the probability of a husband murdering his wife is higher than that of a miracle, but that’s not a valid argument against Craig.  Carrier admits that the prior of a husband killing his wife is 25%, which is significantly less than 50%, which means that by the prior it is more likely that someone else killed her than that her husband killed her, which means that we shouldn’t believe that he killed her and probably, given that it’s a 75% chance, should believe that someone else did (depending on where Carrier’s threshold for knowledge is, we might even be able to make a knowledge claim on that, which would be, well, utterly ridiculous if we could use a prior that way).  Arguing that a miracle is even more improbable does not change the fact that we can indeed add evidence to show that the improbable — by priors — event happened, unless Carrier wants to argue that it is highly unlikely that we could ever get such evidence, which he sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t want to do.  But, at any rate, all this would do is move us towards considering what sorts of evidence in each specific case would count or would work, and this moves us away from caring overmuch about the prior and instead towards looking at the specific incident, which goes against both what Hume argued and what Carrier has been arguing in the entire post.  Second, Craig is not saying that the relevant evidence is what you’d see in a court of law or that legal standards are the appropriate ones.  From what Carrier is saying about it, at least, all he’s saying is that we can start from a low prior and by adding evidence get to the state where we reasonably know that that things with a relatively low prior probability actually happened.  Craig thinks that we have enough evidence for that — maybe — but he’s accusing Hume of only considering the prior or at least overemphasizing it in determining whether the event happened, and the example is to show that the specific circumstances and details can overwhelm the prior probability.  Carrier has to think that that’s true, but all of his arguments have been aimed at ignoring the specifics and claiming that the prior overwhelms those considerations.  So he really misses the mark here.

Here we get to the prior probability argument:

After that point TMM is right to call Craig out for a different mistake: Craig’s false claim that “Hume only considers the prior probability.” This is basically lying. The prior evidence Craig is a liar generally is vast; and it’s very improbable Craig is this ignorant of Hume’s actual argument, and even if he is, he is then lying about his being familiar with it, and thus either way is a liar. Hume properly takes into account both the prior probability and the likelihood ratio (the probability of the evidence, in the case “testimonies,” on either a claim being true or its being false). Hume’s argument is that the latter can never be large enough in favor of a testimony’s reliability to overcome the prior probability against it. Earman’s corrected Humean argument is that the latter is never large enough in favor of a testimony’s reliability to overcome the prior probability against it. The difference is that, per Earman, some evidence someday could produce a large enough likelihood ratio; so we cannot say that will never happen. We still have to examine testimony to ascertain if it is “that reliable” or not. So far, it never has been. Which itself is evidence against the reliability of any such testimony (that miracle claims have such a peculiarly low rate of reliability compared to mundane claims evinces that miracle claims in themselves have a particular reliability problem: Proving History, pp. 114-17).

Actually, while Craig may not have stated it properly, Craig’s complaint is valid for both Hume and for what Carrier has done here.  While it may not be entirely correct to say that Hume only considers the prior probability, he certainly considers the prior probability so overwhelming that we don’t need to consider the particulars of the testimony.  We don’t have to ask if the person is honest, reliable or has any reason to lie because there is no way for that testimony to overcome the hugely improbable prior probability of a miracle.  And Carrier has been clear throughout the entire post that he is willing to ignore the specific details of a case if the priors work out better, as seen by his alien and sorcerer arguments.  So, at the very least, we can say that the two of them are giving too much importance to the priors and not to the specific details of the case under consideration.

To me, though, that’s not the main problem with Hume, and it’s a problem that will carry over to Carrier’s and possibly Earman’s (I have not read it) counters.  The problem is that their arguments show that Bayesian approaches have a fundamental flaw that rears its ugly head here:  that reasonable epistemologies are not properly describable by probabilities.  Here, we are talking about testimony, which is what we hear from other people.  Testimony and our senses are two of our basic epistemology methodologies, and are the two main ways that we learn about the world.  However, the two of them have also been proven to be inaccurate at times.  So what we have are two really, really important processes for gaining knowledge about the world, but processes that do go wrong at times — people lie, we see hallucinations, and so on and so forth — and so we have to correct for that.  So we’ve built up an entire set of processes around determining when those processes are reliable and when they aren’t, which is what we use to determine that we are getting an accurate view of what the world is really like.

What Hume does for testimony is also what some do for sense experiences, in that he rejects the processes that we use to determine if they are reliable because they produce a conclusion that he “doesn’t like”, in the sense that he thinks it improbable.  Yes, one of the processes that we use to keep those processes accurate is to check to see if what they are saying is too improbable to believe true.  But all that does is raise doubts, and forces us to check them to see if they are accurate using the other processes.  We cannot use that to completely dismiss what they are telling us if we can validate that the processes are working properly to the best of our knowledge.  So in the case of miracles, if we are in the situation where if we believe the person’s testimony then it was clearly a miracle if that person is known to be scrupulously honest and has no motive to lie, we’d have to accept that by all the standards we have for checking testimony they seem to be telling the truth and so we should believe that they are telling the truth, which means that we should believe that a miracle occurred.  To reject that, as Hume does, is to undercut the very processes by which we come to accurately know the world simply because we don’t like what those processes are telling us.  That’s not a reasonable epistemology.

Let me highlight this with the example of sense perception.  If, say, I saw something that looked like a ghost, it would be perfectly reasonable for me to check to see if that was happening in a case where my sense perceptions are actually accurate.  Was it possible that I was dozing and so dreamed it?  Was I getting a clear perception of it or was it only a quick glimpse?  Could I have been under the influence of some kind of drug that could produce hallucinations?  Is it possible that I have some kind of brain condition that could cause hallucinations?  And so on and so forth.  But if I’ve checked all of these cases and none of them seem to be the case, I could not dismiss my sense perception as a hallucination or not real only because I don’t want to believe in ghosts or, in the case of the Bayesian approach, because I consider ghosts too improbable.  Sitting down and working out the probabilities might well come do the conclusion that it is more likely that I had a hallucination than saw a ghost even with all of those checks — if we consider ghosts sufficiently improbable — but to do so would be to claim that my sense perceptions could be inaccurate for no known reason, which would then mean that even the ones that I think probable could be entirely inaccurate since I would no longer have a way to determine which ones are real and which are not other than what I a priori think or want to be true.

So the problem with Hume is that he would place what we think is or should be true over what our best epistemic processes working to their best possible ability say is true.  You can’t do that, and trying to do that on the basis of a subjective probability calculation — in the sense that it depends on the beliefs that we ourselves hold that may not be universal — doesn’t work any better.

Carrier also makes a very strange argument that shows how the Bayesian approach can be incredibly odd and flawed (at least when he uses it):

For example, in Craig’s “murder husband” analogy, a witness who saw the husband go into the house shortly before the murder ceases to be evidence for his having murdered his wife if the evidence altogether establishes that he was there when his wife was murdered by someone else, and there is nothing differentially improbable about his being home with her at the time. In such a case, the evidence is equally probable on both theories, and therefore increases the probability of neither. Or if the evidence altogether instead establishes that the husband was in another city at the time (say, by several independent unimpeachable public video records), and the “witness” did not know that at the time they testified, then the impeachment of their testimony does not increase the probability the husband did it, but actually, rather, increases the probability that the witness murdered his wife (as otherwise why did they lie about who they saw there?); yes, perhaps not enough on its own to convict them, but the material point here is that what you think is evidence “for” a conclusion, might actually be evidence “against” it: it all depends on the ratio of probabilities between the competing hypotheses explaining that testimony.

Carrier seems blissfully unaware of all of the assumptions he makes here about the specific details and other factors when talking about how one simple piece of evidence can change the probabilities.  The key thing here is that he says that if we had a witness who claimed to see the husband enter the house but it could be proved that the husband was out of town at that time, that therefore increases the probability that the witness committed the murder.  Why?  Because otherwise there’s no reason for them to lie.  But this assumes that they are, in fact, lying, as opposed to merely being mistaken.  Carrier is using this to argue against the idea that anything that makes a specific conclusion more probably is therefore evidence for that conclusion, by claiming that it has to make that conclusion more probable wrt the other, competing hypotheses.  And then immediately insists that it makes it more likely that the witness is the murderer while ignoring that unless we have other reasons to think that the witness is lying or might have wanted to kill the wife the evidence that the husband is in another city would certainly make it probable that it was someone who looked like the husband that the witness saw.  So Carrier could not simply state that it makes the conclusion that the witness was the murderer more probable because compared to the “someone who looked like the husband” conclusion it wouldn’t necessarily be more probable.

Of course, the flaw with this sort of reasoning is that in practice we always have a huge number of potential conclusions and so for any piece of evidence we have that supports any one of them by definition it’s going to make the conclusion more probable compared to some while also possibly also making other conclusions more probable as well.  In short, it will reduce the probability of some conclusions and increase the probability of some conclusions.  It will be rare that it only supports one conclusion or works against one conclusion in that way, and in a lot of those cases unless it’s a definitive piece of evidence what we will have is a bunch of evidence for one conclusion and a bunch of different evidence for another conclusion and so on and so forth.  So, yeah, Craig is at least roughly right to say that in general and in Bayesianism anything that supports a conclusion increases its probability.  In fact, for Bayesians it’s actually a result of things being the other way around:  if a piece of evidence increases the probability of a conclusion, then it’s evidence for it and supports it, even if it might support other conclusions as well.  The only case that wouldn’t work is if it increases the probability of all conclusions … which is impossible unless it eliminates one, but that would be pulling a word trick and not a real case.

Carrier also directly misinterprets Hume later:

Hume’s mistake was to declare this an inviolable universal rule. But of course it can’t be. If we could only ever believe what we had seen ourselves, nearly all human knowledge would be impossible.

Hume didn’t argue that, nor did he even imply it with his argument.  His claim is limited to miracles, which are things that are so improbable that we could not believe even the most reliable testimony.  It’s actually pretty reasonable that he could run the same reasoning to show that no sense experience could ever be considered reliable enough to prove a miracle, given the flaws in sense experience.  He could easily argue that it is always more likely that we were hallucinating than experiencing a miracle, given how improbable a miracle is by definition.  So, again, Carrier does not get what Hume’s argument actually is while purporting to save it.  And in so doing, doesn’t save it at all from the actual issues with it.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Joseph of Arimathea

December 24, 2021

So this is all covered in one chapter in Pearce’s book “The Resurrection”, but it takes up only about 10 pages.  The big thing that I’m not going to talk about in detail is the claim that we can’t find the supposed city or area of Arimathea that he supposedly came from, but that if the name is broken down one can read out a supposedly meaningful title which would then indicate that he was a literary invention.  That he’s in all four of the Gospels and so would have to start from Mark who is, as noted by Pearce, not as inclined towards inventing characters or tying things to prophecies works against this interpretation.  It might be true, but this is one case where we have to believe that this was part of Christian lore and the Jesus narrative for a long time across a lot of threads, and so that it was just invented would require a lot more evidence than that, even if that’s actually correct.  So the challenges to the narrative are more important here than what seems like an important contradiction of the facts.  If the story can hold up, then either the name was lost and replaced with one that might have that meaning or else it was a real place that we haven’t found yet.

Of course, Pearce doesn’t think that the narrative holds up, and since I’m focusing on the narratives that’s what I’m going to focus on.

The four Gospels are actually pretty close in how they describe the events here.  At the end of the day, Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body to be released to him.  Pilate agrees, and Joseph has him laid in a new tomb that no one else had been buried in yet.  The importance of this is to explain how Jesus was laid into a tomb so that He could be resurrected from it later, which is thus important to establish the claim of the empty tomb which provides “proof” that Jesus was resurrected and not just buried and forgotten.  So the narrative here needs to establish that Joseph had reason to claim the body, and the means to both claim it and have it be buried in a tomb.

Pearce, it seems to me, provides another example of digging too deeply into claims in an attempt to show them unreasonable when he claims this:

There is no reason why the Gospel author would mention Joseph as a rich man.  It seems this is another example of the prophecy fulfillment (page 150).

Pearce does point to a line in Isaiah that refers to Jesus having been buried with a rich man, but the claim that there was no reason for them to mention Joseph being rich otherwise makes no sense.  There are lots of reasons to mention him as being rich and/or prominent.  First, to provide an explanation for why he’d have access to a tomb (some accounts claim it was his).  Second, to provide an explanation for why he’d be able to get access to Pilate to be able to claim the body.  Third — although less critically — to explain why he would do that without having to fear reprisals from the religious authorities himself.  Being someone with power and authority but who doesn’t owe that authority to the Jerusalem leaders means that he doesn’t have to support their position and could toss the threat that the religious leaders threw at Pilate back at them (at least in my version):  they could go after him for giving the criminal a proper burial, but then his supporters would cause trouble for them.  And since Joseph at this time would be more popular with Pilate than they were and would still be a wealthy and prominent man, they would be quite likely to just go with it and avoid any new problems.

Now, I couldn’t see it in the quotes given, but there seemed to be some kind of narrative somewhere about not wanted dead bodies to hang on the crosses through the evening and/or into the Sabbath (Pearce mentions it on page 153 and talks about it a lot in the next chapter).  Pearce himself talks quite a bit about this, so I can use the idea that the Jews didn’t want the dead bodies hanging on the cross seemingly because that could bring a curse on them.  If this is true, then there is more to Joseph doing this and being a member of the Council than we might think, because this situation is a bit more complicated than Pearce thinks:

I can’t imagine that Pilate would normally care about such petty things as taking a body down from a cross to fulfill Jewish laws, as it would probably be happening every day or, at least, very often (page 153).

This is to question why a special request would need to be made at all.  And Pearce is right to say that under normal circumstances, we’d presume that some kind of standard procedure would be in place to deal with the fact that the Jews don’t want dead bodies to hang on an execution device into the evening (they believed that it ran the risk of them being cursed by God) while the Romans liked to leave the bodies hanging as long as possible as an object lesson to others.  However, given what happened this was indeed a special case, which I’ll weave into my narrative that tries to resolve the purported contradictions.

Jesus was, indeed, technically executed under the auspices of the Romans.  However, that execution was clearly at the instigation of the Jewish leaders, and as both the Gospels and my own account note Pilate made it abundantly clear that the responsibility for the deaths should fall on them.  So it’s easy to imagine, then, that the Council started to worry that if they are responsible for the execution of Jesus then that curse might fall upon them.  If they had performed the execution themselves, then they would clearly be responsible, but would clearly have the authority to take the dead bodies down.  If Jesus was just someone who violated Roman law, then they wouldn’t have that authority, but then the violation of Jewish law and the associated curse would fall on the Romans, which wouldn’t bother them that much.  So in cases where the execution was Roman, it’s actually possible that they just let the Romans do what they would normally do, safe and secure in the fact that any curse would fall on the Romans and not themselves, and in the cases where they did the execution then they’d obviously follow Jewish law.  But in this case the jurisdiction is a lot more complicated.

So I could easily see the religious leaders getting worried about this, and being unsure about whether the curse would fall on them or on the Romans.  But they certainly wouldn’t want to go against the Roman custom on their own, especially since Pilate was probably not all that happy with them at the moment.  So they needed someone to approach Pilate and ask for the body, and Joseph volunteered to do it.

Now, why would Joseph do that?  Well, at a minimum we’d want him to have a reason beyond just ensuring that they aren’t cursed, because otherwise Pearce’s comment that he would have just buried Jesus in a criminal’s grave would make sense.  So at a minimum he doesn’t think that Jesus was really a criminal.  He at least would have thought that if the Council wanted to execute a perceived threat to their power, they should have just done it themselves instead of trying to push the responsibility off on the Romans.  He also likely would have believed that what Jesus was saying wasn’t really seditious or blasphemy anyway.  He might even have believed that what Jesus was saying made sense and so secretly supported Him.  At any rate, he was pleasantly disposed towards Jesus, wasn’t part of the negotiations with Pilate and so wasn’t disliked by him at the moment, was prominent enough to get an audience without having to claim that he was from the religious authorities, and had a reason to want to take charge of the burial to avoid Jesus being buried as a criminal.

I think that Joseph wasn’t a disciple in the sense of being one of the Twelve.  The only mention of his being one is in John, and it doesn’t seem likely that he could be a secret member of the Twelve.  So at most Joseph would be a disciple in the sense that he wasn’t in any way official, at least, and still think it more likely that he was just a supporter.  This deals with Pearce’s arguments that if Joseph was a disciple why didn’t he co-ordinate with the others and with Mary and Mary Magdalene to tell them where Jesus was buried and why Joseph wasn’t mentioned in any of the later works.  As someone who was merely a supporter, he may not have liked or trusted the disciples enough to take them into his confidence, or even known enough about them to seek them out, and as merely a supporter despite being prominent he may not have done anything important enough to make it into the narratives.  As a member of the Twelve we might have expected it, but he almost certainly wasn’t one of the Twelve and so these aren’t interesting questions.

Anyway, to finish this off, Joseph likely wanted to ensure that Jesus was not buried as a criminal, and so took charge of the body to bury it in a tomb instead of a criminal’s grave.  He likely planned to leave it in that tomb for the year and then return it to Jesus’ family, which was allowed by Jewish law according to Pearce (in later chapters).  There are also the discussions about leaving it in the tomb overnight due to the Sabbath restrictions, and so Joseph may well have used that as an excuse and planned to never actually remove it.  As for the fact that others would likely have been buried there as well and that the families wouldn’t have wanted them to be buried with criminals, Joseph being prominent and respected could have pointed out that this was all illegitimate and so they didn’t need to worry about that at all.  And if the Council pressured him he could always push back with his wealthy and influence to get them to drop the issue.

Now, one final thing.  I don’t need to add the points about the Council needing to have the body removed and Joseph stepping forward.  I only added it because Pearce makes a big deal out of that.  As stated, Joseph is a prominent man who, finding that Jesus was already dead, asked Pilate if he could take the body.  His prominence would still protect him from the Jewish authorities, his support of Jesus would explain why he wants to save Jesus from a criminal grave, and his prominence would explain why Pilate would listen to him, and Pilate already has good reason to at least not care about whether Jesus was treated strictly as a criminal by Jewish law.  And being a mere supporter and upright man could explain why he participates in this scene and fades out afterwards.  So it actually holds up fairly well on its own, which is odd for a purported issue that gets its own chapter in the book.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Pilate and the Jews

December 17, 2021

After taking a break last week to talk about a post by Richard Carrier, I’m going to return to talking about Jonathan MS Pearce’s critical examinations again.  As noted before, I’m pretty much going to skip everything about the Nativity except for what I’ve already talked about and move on to talking about his book on the Resurrection.  Even here, I’m not going to talk about everything in the book or even the bulk of the book, because much of it I don’t find to be interesting or important contradictions or problems for the account.  And I’m not going to quote very much from it except where absolutely necessary — usually where Pearce says something that seems to me to be rather ridiculous and I want to make it easy for people to tell if I’ve interpreted it correctly or not — because I have them in hard copy and it’s not all that easy to quote from a hard copy.

Before getting into this in detail, let me reiterate that there are two things I will do here that Pearce may not agree with but that I think is fair given my position.  The first is that since I consider Pearce to be making a knowledge claim that these are major contradictions that cannot be reasonably resolved all I’m going to try to do is come up with a reasonable sequence of events given the Gospel narratives that resolves at least most of the contradictions.  The second is that there is no requirement for me to take the texts literally, so I can allow for some aspects to be legendary in nature.  The one thing that I’m going to resist is any attempt to claim that the Gospel writer completely invented it, and instead will aim for explanations that allow for those details of have been generated from the oral accounts and selected for by the Gospel writers, usually in line with their overall project.

So, let’s start with the events leading up to the Crucifixion, specifically Jesus’ trial and being condemned to death by Pilate.  Pearce questions this on the basis that since Jesus’ main crime was blasphemy He would have been tried by the Jewish religious leaders and stoned to death, not crucified.  Also, Pilate wouldn’t have acted the way he was presented in the accounts that focus on him.  He certainly, the argument goes, wouldn’t have had a tradition to release a prisoner for the people for the religious holiday so that he could offer them Jesus and have the people choose the other prisoner instead, and demand Jesus’ execution.  So, for these and some other reasons that I won’t list right now, he finds that account pretty suspicious.

Here’s what I think is the reasonable interpretation.

The Jewish religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their religious authority, and wanted to get rid of Him.  But He has support among the people, and they knew that they risked riling up their own people if they moved against Him without a sufficient case against Him.  This actually brings in their attempts to trap Him into making directly blasphemous statements, so that they could use that as justification for His arrest and potentially eventual execution.  But He managed to evade their traps.  However, at one point He made a “mistake”, at least from their perspective, and said that He was “The King of the Jews”.  While He certainly meant it religiously, this would seem like a glorious opportunity for them, as it would bring Him in opposition to the secular authorities and, thus, the Romans.  While He had evaded their earlier attempt — them asking Him to talk about whether the Jews should pay taxes to the Romans — and while this wasn’t as strong a statement, it was probably good enough for them to push Pilate to try and execute Him, and thus they’d eliminate the threat to their power while leaving their hands clean.

So, they arrested Him themselves and presented Him to the Roman authorities so that they could try Him.  But from what people in this debate have said about Pilate, he was both politically adept and a bit of a jerk.  So he would have realized fairly quickly from Jesus’ testimony that Jesus didn’t really mean it in the political sense and so what was happening was that the religious leaders were trying to use him to remove a rival.  And so he would have been fairly clear that he didn’t see this as being treason against the state and that he wanted to release Jesus.  But then the religious leaders would point out that the statement is technically seditious and so if Pilate let Jesus go free it would look like he was going easy on such sentiments, and would at least imply that they’d make sure that opinion was circulated among the people.

So at this point, Pilate has a bit of a political issue here.  And again Pilate is politically adept and a bit of a jerk, and so he will be examining this situation quite carefully.  Obviously, he’s not going to want the Jewish authorities feel that they can get him to do their dirty work all the time.  However, he also doesn’t want to get into these clashes for any reason either, because that will unsettle the area and make things difficult for him.  The first thing he’d note is that Jesus Himself is not in any way important enough for Pilate to fight over.  Pilate didn’t care one whit for Jesus except for His role in this specific situation.  So he had no reason to go to bat for Jesus Himself.  Given that, it would be far easier to just go along with the religious leaders and execute Jesus.  However, he would want to make it clear to the religious leaders not to make these sort of maneuvers a habit, and he would want to try to make it public that the main impetus for this execution was not him but was the religious leaders, in case the people got upset about the execution.  The religious leaders wanted to be able to blame him for the execution, but he wanted the people to blame them if they got upset.

So the entire scene where Pilate washes his hands of the situation and offers to release someone else to cries from the crowd to kill Jesus may not have actually happened as described.  Pilate could possibly have arranged some sort of dramatic signal of his views, and it’s not unreasonable to think that the religious leaders might have staged some sort of protest to demonstrate that they had the power to stir the people up against Jesus and thus against Pilate if Pilate didn’t execute Jesus.  But this also could have been legends that got mixed in afterwards.  However, if so, it seems reasonable to me that these were legends that were invented because they reflected the attitudes at the time, and ones that both sides were willing to make public:  Pilate making it clear that he didn’t think that Jesus deserved to be crucified and that the push for this came from the Jewish leaders, and the religious leaders making it clear that the people themselves railed against Jesus as someone pushing sedition and thus risking more oppressive measures being taken by the Romans against the Jews.

Pearce, if I recall correctly, talks about the Pilate stories being invented at the time when Christianity moved towards blaming the Jews instead of the Romans for Jesus’ death.  However, as seen above, the stories didn’t need to be invented, but instead could have been selected for to align with that idea, from a thread that Pilate would have deliberately created for his own political gain.

There’s also a curious issue here in that Pilate does ask them why they can’t try Jesus themselves and the religious leaders reply that they aren’t allowed to put someone to death.  As Pearce notes — and his entire argument relies on this — they were able to sentence people to death for blasphemy by stoning.  So why would they say that they couldn’t?  Since they wanted Jesus executed but to be executed by the Romans, it’s possible that they were relying on Pilate not knowing much about their authority to catch them in a lie, although I would think that Pilate would be aware if they could execute people or not given how much authority that entailed.  Pilate might also have not wanted to argue with them over the lie at this stage, especially given that he probably wouldn’t want them to execute people too blithely either.  Or else this one was invented by storytellers — not the evangelists — to answer that very question and explain why Jesus had to be crucified.

So, I think this account works, as it fits with pretty much everything that is described in the biblical accounts (or, at least, everything important).  And this account creates the political situation that explains a lot of what happened later, as next time I return to this topic I’ll talk about Joseph of Arimathea.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: The Census

December 3, 2021

Here, I’m actually going to talk a little bit about actual arguments that Pearce makes, mostly in his book on the Nativity.  So let me set out how I’m going to approach that.  I have actual paper copies of his books, because I don’t like to read books on a computer screen.  So I don’t even have any kind of E-Reader or anything like that.  This means, then, that if I want to quote something I can’t copy and paste it from a document or post, but instead have to manually type it in, which is obviously a bit more effort.  Since this is just a blog and I’m not writing an academic paper, I’m not going to do that all that often, except when it’s really, really necessary.  And for some minor points, as you’ve already seen I’m just going to loosely talk about them without even providing a direct reference to them.  So I obviously encourage everyone to read the works themselves if they find my summaries dubious to see if I’m correct in my interpretations.

I also want to note that I’m not going to talk all that much about his book on the Nativity, focusing more on his book on the Resurrection (and I’m not even going to read his upcoming book on the Exodus).  The reason is that it seems to me that the book on the Nativity, being the earlier book, is less detailed and also less important to the overall project.  So instead I’m going to use it to highlight another potential issue with Biblical skepticism, which is making arguments about things being invented and not being at all true while ignoring the purpose for which such things would be invented in the first place.

As I noted last time, it is important when noting that things seem to be invented that they were invented for a specific reason.  For the most part, we aren’t going to find stories that are invented simply for the sake of being invented.  I believe that most of the time any invented stories are going to be invented to answer questions from the audience.  Pearce tends to believe that the invented stories are there to further the specific theological commitments of the writer.  But even in that case we can’t leave the audience out, as they are going to have to go along with the story as well.  It won’t be terribly effective, even if the writer is pushing a theological line, to do that with a story that the audience reacts to with “Who cares?”.  So even in that case if the audience doesn’t share the theology the writer is going to have to write it in a way that makes the story compelling enough to them that they accept it and thus accept that theology.

One of the most prominent elements in the Nativity stories — they only appear in Matthew and Luke — is that they need to find a way to explain how Jesus seemed to come from Nazareth but, in order to fulfill prophecy, had to be born in Bethlehem.  The obvious interpretation of this is that the real person Jesus lived in Nazareth and if the stories were invented they were invented to fulfill the prophecy.  But since this would imply that Jesus was a real person, mythicists — people who believe that Jesus was a completely made-up myth, like Richard Carrier — argue that that’s not what it meant, but that people mistook the religious title of “Nazarene” for the place, and so that created the purported tension that needed to be resolved there.  Their main argument is that Nazareth didn’t exist at that point in time and so they couldn’t be saying that Jesus was from there.  The issue I have with this, though, is that it seems a rather odd mistake to make, given that the context should have been clear enough to discern that.  Why would these two writers both make that rather odd mistake?  Wouldn’t there have to be some kind of context that led them to that conclusion, and a strong enough context that they felt the need to write up an entire Nativity narrative to refute it?

To me, it seems equally if not more reasonable to argue that the context already existed, and that the later mistake, if it was a mistake, was in assuming that the religious title referred to the at that point known place.  If there had never been any issue with Jesus living in one place but needed to be born in another, and if most people knew that “Nazarene” could refer to a religious title, then why wouldn’t the writers simply avoid the issue by saying that it clearly referred to the religious title and that Jesus then unproblematically lived in Bethlehem.  But if there was an underlying context or question of why Jesus came from one place while needed to have been born in Bethlehem, then that option wouldn’t be available to them.  And it’s easier, then, to imagine that the original place Jesus was from might have been lost.  And so they’d have a need for Jesus to live in a place other than Bethlehem and something that at the time, at least, could refer to either a place or a religious title, which then would mean that in light of that conflict interpreting “Nazarene” to refer to the place is actually reasonable, given that the place Jesus was from was important and any Judaic religious title He might have had was not.

So we need to look at what the audience could be expected to know or need to know.  Yes, it’s possible that they just misinterpreted that title for the place, but given how important at least those two authors thought it that seems less likely than that the issue had already been raised and made a big issue, and then the more reasonable mistake would be to insert “Nazareth” in for the place Jesus lived as opposed to simply inventing an entire story about Jesus living one place and needing to be born in another.

This also applies to an argument that Pearce and Carrier both use, which is that Luke uses a census to explain why Joseph and Mary had to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem but even if there was a census at that time — which they doubt — censuses in ancient times simply didn’t work that way.  They do provide some evidence for this (and I’m not saying that they’re wrong) but there is an issue with this sort of argument:  they are arguing that censuses didn’t work that way from the perspective of what information we have today, but the audience was a lot closer to those times than we were.  Remember that Luke needed to come up with an explanation for Jesus being born in Bethlehem that his audience would accept, and they were relatively familiar with censuses, or at least the ones happening at the time.  That it doesn’t look like they were overly concerned with Luke’s explanation should at least cast doubt on whether a census working that way was as inconceivable as Pearce and Carrier say it is.  Pearce himself notes another explanation which was that Joseph had to go there for the Judaic tradition of returning sold property, but says that if that was the case Luke should have just said so but never mentions that.  But again if we appeal to the audience the audience would be well aware of that tradition, and so would simply accept that that was the reason.  Given that, Luke simply would never have felt the need to mention it.  Only here, in this time, where the tradition was lost, would we need that to be explicitly stated.  As an example, if someone was telling a story and said “He went to the supermarket, but he had forgotten his mask and had to go home, which is when he interrupted the burglar” these days pretty much all of us would not be at all puzzled by his needing a mask to go into the supermarket, but give it 20 or 50 or 100 years and the audience will probably not be able to figure that out.

So one thing that it’s important for pretty much everyone to do when doing these things is to think about what the audience at the time would have known or thought.  These accounts are always going to be written so that the audience finds them convincing (or else they wouldn’t have survived) and so we need to analyze these things knowing that the audience found them convincing and would be willing to question things that didn’t make sense, especially commonsensical things that are not themselves theological but instead impact it.  Anything invented will be invented to convince the audience that a purported problem isn’t one or to answer a question that the audience would have, and so it wouldn’t have done its job if it was obvious to that audience that it wasn’t true and so was invented.