Saturday, April 28, 2012

The "Carrier Myth" Debate

The following debate occurred in a smoke-filled Virtual Cafe somewhere in space between geeky Christians.  They saw the spring sun shining outside their windows, but rather than going outside and enjoying it as is healthful, fell into a mood to poke cheerful fun at a "famous historian" who sorely tempts that muse of satire and whimsy which emerges in spring with the tulips.     

Some participants, no doubt recognizing the gravity of being cited positively on this blog, asked to be honored with anonymity.  So let us cast this as one of Zhuang Zi's parables, and give the disputants properly distinguished, sagely titles.  Let us imagine them splitting sunflower seeds, drinking tea, and chatting about the strange goings-on on Earth below, as the Great Conversation takes a strange bypath (cue Twilight Zone background music) by that mighty Stoica in the Sky.  The symposium begins with a paper read by a senior sage, who looks somewhat like an elderly Tim McGrew. 

Socrates: The initial odds that Richard Carrier exists are -- let's be generous -- a hundred to one in favor of the proposition.

Part of the definition of Richard Carrier is that he is supposed to be a scholar with a Ph. D. in History. He is also supposed to be relatively young, which makes him one of, say, 3,000 or so History Ph. D.s to have been minted in the past five years. These factors will become important as we proceed.

Now we throw some of the other factors into the mix. Richard Carrier (if he exists) is a Jesus mythicist, someone who disbelieves in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth as a real person in space and time. Of the 3,000 or so History Ph. D.s minted in the last five years, and bracketing Carrier for the moment so as not to beg any questions, how many are mythicists? It's a pretty safe bet that the number is close to zero. Let's be generous, however, and suppose that there are 30, all of them devout mythicists (though in secret, for fear of damaging their careers). But -- and this is the point we must dwell on -- if the internet atheist community wanted to create a superhero who could defeat the Christians by his superior credentials, would we not expect them to invest him with a doctorate in History and, at the same time, have him endorse, nay, vindicate, the mythicist position? Surely this is not very improbable, say, even odds (for the mythicist position is very well represented online). And that the internet atheists should invent such a character, though it might seem a bit far fetched, is not really that unlikely, since all of history amply documents the human response to the felt need for superheroes. (Vide not only Egyptian and Greek mythology but also the Edda and The Avengers, due to be released in a couple of weeks.) Upon the whole, it seems safe to say that the probability of the invention of such a character is at least .1. At a conservative estimate, the likelihood ratio

P(Historian-myther-hero|Richard Carrier is not a real person)/P(Historian-myther-hero|Richard Carrier is a real person) is therefore .1/(30/3,000), or 10 to 1.

But Richard Carrier is also supposed to be a "world renowned philosopher and historian" (according to the blurb on Why I am not a Christian). Problems now begin to crowd more thickly around the definition. How many History Ph. D.s are philosophers at all? Surely not very many. How many are world renowned philosophers, even though they have just obtained the Ph. D.? The percentages are vanishing; the probability cannot sensibly be estimated at greater than 0.0001. But this would be a very useful accomplishment to add to the credentials of a historian-myther-hero, if he were an invented character. Let us suppose the probability to be merely 0.1 (though it should probably be higher), and we get the likelihood ratio:

P(World-renowned philosopher|Richard Carrier is not a real person; Historian-myther-hero)/P(World-renowned philosopher|Richard Carrier is a real person; Historian-myther-hero)

= 0.1/0.0001, or 1000 to 1.

We can go further. This world-renowned philosopher-historian-myther-hero is also a mathematician. Given historians' well-known disdain for mathematical methods, the probability of this if Carrier is a real person is low, though perhaps not so drastically low as it would be if our hero were not also a philosopher, since perhaps as many as ten percent of all philosophers can and do use mathematical methods from time to time. Call the conditional probability of this detail, given the reality of Carrier and all of the other factors considered thus far, 0.05. But the mythic Carrier would only be enhanced by adding mathematical abilities to his other powers; it is at least even money that, if he is entirely mythical, this additional qualification would be tacked onto his resume. However, so as not to overestimate the probability, let us reduce the estimate to:

P(Mathematician||Richard Carrier is not a real person; Historian-myther-hero; World-renowned philosopher)/P(Mathematician|Richard Carrier is a real person; Historian-myther-hero; World-renowned philosopher)

= 0.2/0.05, or 4 to 1.

Putting these factors together, we have to weigh odds of 100 to 1 for Carrier's reality against the combination of other factors, which tip the scales at 40,000 to 1 against. These considerations alone leave us with odds of 400 to 1 against, or a probability just a bit in excess of .9975 that Richard Carrier is not a real person.

We might go on in this vein for quite some time, noting further incongruities in the Carrier myth. How many trained historians would misread Plutarch's "On Isis and Osiris" 19.358b as declaring Osiris's physical resurrection from the dead here on earth? How many mathematicians would bungle basic probability calculations? How many philosophers, world-renowned or otherwise, would endorse the position that the laws of logic "obviously" derive from the laws of physics? Yet such blunders are what we might well expect to crop up as the community feigning Carrier's existence attempted to demonstrate his expertise in one field after another.

So the calculation given above seriously underestimates the probabilities in the case. Almost certainly, by strict Bayesian reasoning, Richard Carrier does not exist.

And yet, I venture to predict that the vast majority of Carrier-believers will pay no attention whatsoever to Bayesian reasoning when it is applied rigorously to conclusions that they hold sacred.

Epicurus: I've never seen or met this "Carrier" and so far, other than hearsay stories, I don't have any reason to think he exists.

Aristotle: You're too generous in your priors, elder sage.  There's no way I use "Richard Carrier did it" as an explanation 1 time in every 100. I hardly ever use "Richard Carrier did it" as an explanation - in fact, I'm not convinced I've *ever* used it as an explanation. I therefore assign the prior probability of Richard Carrier's existence the value of 0, because of this flawless and universally accepted rule for generating priors.

Zhuang Zi: I have talked to people who claim to have met Carrier. But they are part of the atheist community, and their "faith testimonies" should therefore be discounted as cognitive dissonance arising from their expectation of meeting Carrier, and then being disappointed.

Celsus: I think ZZ has a good point. It explains why so many people talk about Richard Carrier as if he existed. Talking about him, and convincing other people of his existence, strengthens their faith. That's how cognitive dissonance works. Such is their desire to convince others that they even write pseudonymous books in his name.

Lao Zi: We may also be underestimating the percentage of them who are schizotypal and thus naturally prone to hallucination. Through the psychological phenomena of suggestion, anchoring, and memory contamination, any one of these conditions in one person could have precipitated experiences under the same or other conditions in anyone else similarly predisposed.

Zhuang Zi: Yes, and here's the clincher. I just looked through the indexes of five major historical works that cover modern times: Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations, Nicholas Riasanvosky's A History of Russia, David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Paul Johnson's Modern Times, and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. Note that Carrier, if so important and universal a polymath existed, would surely have been noticed by any competent historian, whatever else they happened to be writing about! And surely Carrier is part of "nearly everything," so Bryson in particular could be counted on to write extensively about his early childhood, school classmates, pets, wise aphorisms and parables, and his wondrous works.

Yet remarkably, not a single one of these contemporary biographers so much as mention Richard Carrier! (Though two mention a "Jimmy Carter," which apologists might seize on as a possible corruption of some sort, but I think we can rule that out.) I'm not one to casually abuse the Argument from Silence, but if every it were applicable, surely one must apply it in this case.

Lucretius: The criteria of embarrassment is also a useless tool for authenticating things from the life of Carrier. For example: it was embarrassing for Carrier to admit that he was destroyed by William Lane Craig in his debate with him- but we know other figures of history who were shown to be completely incompetent and publicly humiliated who never existed.

Lucretius  What's even more interesting is the parallels between the life of Carrier and the Homeric Epics.

Zhuang Zi: Perhaps we can follow up on your suggestion.  Reading the Carrier myth in light of the Homeric epics, I can't help but see parallels between Bart Erhman and the Sirens. And with that, other pieces fall into place -- fundamentalism as the whirlpool that causes boats to flounder, James McGrath as the Circe, of course William Lane Craig as the Cyclops, clubbing skeptics one by one as they try to escape from his cave. "Coming home" is a clear a reference to getting a good job at a major university in today's economy, hopefully somewhere in California, the "wine red sea" a reference to communion, which represents the fear of orthodoxy that lies deep in the Gnu subconscious. Robert Price is the faithful old beggar who recognizes the King come to reclaim his own, PZ Myers as the faithful hound that barks at his return, and so on. 

At this point a younger spirit, who has been tapping his foot with increasing impatience,  pounds on the table in petulant anger, scattering sunflower seeds, and shouts, "Hear me oh great men!  My thoughts are like wine that is about to break open old wine skins!"  He may not realize he is echoing the simile Elihu employed in the Book of Job, for in his earthly life, he was a famous New Testament scholar.

Bultmann: Gentlemen, you're missing the point!  What really matters is the 'Carrier of faith,' regardless of what we think about the 'Carrier of history'.

And with that, the meeting disbanded.  Most of the wise sages scoffed at the youngster, but one or two whispered in his ear, "We will hear more of this." 


Hans said...

Excellent post. Truly superb.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Han. Credit, of course, goes to Socrates & Co. Quite a bit of traffic so far -- I'll tweek it.

Crude said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David B Marshall said...

Crude: Please ask them to give "Socrates" the anonymity he requested.

David B Marshall said...

Sorry to delete your post, BTW -- it's just that some people asked for anonymity, so I want to preserve it, anyway.

I'm "Zhuang Zi," though, if you hadn't guessed.

Crude said...

No sweat, David. I had no idea this was supposed to be anonymous. I was just confused as to who wrote this, and who was getting credit for it.

A Lesser Son of the King said...

Very clever. Spring sunshine is overrated anyway. :)

David B Marshall said...

Lesser Son: I take it you're not from Seattle?

A Lesser Son of the King said...

No. I'm from Wyoming. More than fifteen minutes of sunlight tend to give my skin a pinkish cast. :)

If I lived in Seattle, I might change my mind, though.

David B Marshall said...

Ah! That explains the mountain behind the tree in your thumbnail photo.

Yes, by this time of year, we do welcome any little ray that is willing to slum it with us Seattlites.