Poor Richard Carrier Goes On The Offensive

Poor Richard Carrier Goes On The Offensive

Six years ago I wrote a small, daily piece (Bayes Theorem Proves Jesus Existed And Didn’t Exist) about the use of probability in proving or disproving the existence of God. I’m against it.

I began with a quote by Keynes on Bayes’s Theorem:

No other formula in the alchemy of logic has exerted more astonishing powers. For it has established the existence of God from the premiss of total ignorance; and it has measured with numerical precision the probability the sun will rise to-morrow.

I next said:

Probability carries with it “a smack of astrology, of alchemy.” Comte, Keynes reminds us, regarded the application of the mathematical calculus of probability as “purement chimérique et, par conséquent, tout à fait vicieuse.”

Now these are minds better than mine giving manful advice about over-relying on probability. Heed them. Indeed, as anybody who has regularly read this blog knows, probability is misused with shocking abandon. We all know how probability, mainly through statistical models, is used to “prove anything” — a phrase I trust is recognized for what it is, a figure of speech and not a complete logical treatise on probability misuse (although I’ve done that, too!).

I said:

…there is not one, but two books which argue that a fixed, firm number may be put on the proposition God Exists. The first by Stephen Unwin is called The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation That Proves the Ultimate Truth, in which he uses Bayes’s theorem to demonstrate, with probability one minus epsilon, (the Christian) God exists.

This is countered by Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus by the very concerned Richard Carrier (pictured above), whose uses Bayes’s theorem to prove, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God does not exist because Jesus himself never did.

There we have it: probability proving two diametrically opposite conclusions. Alchemy indeed.

It’s obvious the “equations” “probability one minus epsilon” are mild jokes, probabilistic figures of speech, and not meant as rigorous mathematical proofs that Unwin and Carrier came to these exact precise figures. It’s equally obvious we have two people using probability to argue both sides of a question.

It wasn’t obvious to Richard Carrier. He felt stung at the time of the post, which was later reprinted, and went then into a sort of minor frenzy. In one comment at the time he said:

…Bayes’ Theorem is simply the mathematical model for the arguments historians are already making. If they can’t make a probabilistic argument that Jesus existed, then they can’t claim to know Jesus probably existed. And then we’d all have to concede we don’t know Jesus probably existed. Sink the ship of arguing from probabilities, and all probability arguments go down with it. And with that, all human knowledge. Thus, you have to address what I actually argue, not pretend it’s some sort of advanced significance testing like in the sciences. It’s just an argument that something probably happened in history. And as such is as valid as any other argument that something probably happened in history. Unless no such arguments are valid!

By pointing out improper uses of probability, I have managed to sink All human knowledge! What powers I have! (I always knew I was special.)

Apparently Carrier doesn’t understand Bayes’s theorem isn’t really needed, that it stands or falls based on its inputs. And that the inputs are the only important things worth discussing. Carrier’s inputs are on the order of the Bigfoot conspiracy theories. For Carrier, don’t forget, claims Jesus never existed. Not just that Jesus wasn’t God, but that the man himself did not exist.

Anyway, Carrier spun himself around in circles lo those many years ago. And I forgot about the post, which after all only made a small point.

Carrier didn’t forget. Evidently, the wound I caused festered and never healed. Carrier, we presume, retreated to some dark corner to cherish the injury, only to reemerge two weeks ago with an extraordinarily long piece—found by reader swordfishtrombone—-in which he produces multiple points of evidence proving I’m a “liar”.

His title is “Why Christians Are Terrified of Probability Theory.”

Yeah, sure, Carrier. I’m quivering.

Here are the first two “lies” of which he says I’m guilty:

The title says Briggs is talking about examples of Bayes’ Theorem being used to prove “Jesus Existed (And That He Didn’t).” But he gives no example anywhere in his piece of Bayes’ Theorem ever being used to prove Jesus existed! Lie number one.

In fact, Briggs gives no actual example of Bayes’ Theorem being used to prove Jesus didn’t exist, either. He cites only my book Proving History. In which I never argue any conclusion about the historicity of Jesus. Much less mathematically. Lie number two.

Good grief!


Yet Briggs claims Unwin “uses Bayes’’ theorem to demonstrate, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God exists.” Lie number three.


Number four is my favorite:

Moreover, Unwin’s conclusion is that the probability of God’s existence based on his examination of the evidence is only 67%. Yet Briggs claims Unwin got the result of “probability one minus epsilon,” epsilon being a mathematician’s term for a very small number (in fact, usually infinitesimally small). In other words, Briggs lied. He said Unwin found the probability to be arbitrarily close to 100%. In fact, Unwin found it was far more ambiguously around 67%. Strange lie for Briggs to tell. But alas. Lie number four.

You can read the others, which are equally or more frivolous.

The real problem might be that Carrier was embarrassed by other articles I wrote showing his errors. And so he took his frustration out on a toss-away article by using lawyer-like insinuations about niggling details that nobody cares about.

How about this article? “Richard Carrier’s Argument To Show God’s Existence Unlikely Is Invalid And Unsound“.

Richard Carrier’s argument to show that God probably didn’t create the universe, and therefore He probably doesn’t exist, in Carrier’s “Neither Life nor the Universe Appears Intelligently Designed”, like many attempts to use probability in defense of atheism or theism, is invalid and unsound, and based on fundamental misunderstandings of who God is and of the proper role of probability.

Lower down:

Carrier introduces Bayes’s probability theorem, but only as a club to frighten his enemies and not as a legitimate tool to understand uncertainty. I must be right, he seems to insist, because look at these equations. Bayes’s theorem is a simple means to update the probability of a hypothesis when considering new information. If the information comes all at once, the theorem isn’t especially needed, because there is no updating to be done. Nowhere does Carrier actually needs Bayes and, anyway, probabilistic arguments are never as convincing as definitive proof, which is what we seek when asking whether God exists.

Even lower down is a section on Carrier’s many probability errors.

He repeats many of these errors in his new Pity-Me-Richard-Carrier article:

Taking probability theory seriously, entails exposing assumptions to the light of day, that once exposed, destroy the Christian faith. The resulting cognitive dissonance is so powerful only two options are available to the believer: make shit up (like Unwin and Swinburne, they fabricate fantastical probabilities that have no plausible basis in logic or reality) or declare probability itself the enemy. Briggs picks option B. Meanwhile, all peer reviewed work on the question finds the opposite: that history is in fact Bayesian.

History is not Bayesian, Carrier. Any my work has been peer reviewed, too, which makes it true and indisputable.

Your work, Carrier, has also been peer reviewed. And your peers say harsh things. Which is why Carrier also doesn’t like it when I link to atheist Tim O’Neill’s “History for Atheists” site, which has many articles proving—as in proving—Carrier’s many historical mistakes.

Bear with me for one last quote, as it involves Bayes again.

Two years ago Carrier brought out what he felt was going to be a game-changer in the fringe side-issue debate about whether a historical Jesus existed at all. His book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield-Phoenix, 2014), was the first peer-reviewed (well, kind of) monograph that argued against a historical Jesus in about a century and Carrier’s New Atheist fans expected it to have a shattering impact on the field. It didn’t. Apart from some detailed debunking of his dubious use of Bayes’ Theorem to try to assess historical claims, the book has gone unnoticed and basically sunk without trace. It has been cited by no-one and has so far attracted just one lonely academic review, which is actually a feeble puff piece by the fawning minion mentioned above. The book is a total clunker.

The “detailed debunking” is not mine, but Tim Hendrix’s “Richard Carrier’s ‘On the historicity of Jesus’ A Review From a Bayesian Perspective“. Fifty-seven pages of solid debunking.

“Tim Hendrix” is a pseudonym. “Hendrix” was evidently worried he or his family would be hounded by Carrier’s “fawning minions” (O’Neill’s phrase). And perhaps be called “a liar” by Carrier himself.

You needed have worried, “Tim”. I’ve had mosquito bites that hurt worse than Carrier’s insults.

A decade of the rosary has been said for you, Richard. Miracles do happen!


  1. “Neither Life nor the Universe Appears Intelligently Designed”
    I love philosophy. You can make up definitions for words (intelligent in this case) and prove anything. So flexible. So absolutely frivolous and useless other than mental exercise finding all possible outcomes and silliness.

    “The resulting cognitive dissonance is so powerful only two options are available to the believer ”
    The same is true of an unbeliever who has creeping doubts. How do we know that Carrier does not have creeping doubts and is trying to soothe his cognitive dissonance? Again, I love psychology because you can make up things and there’s no proving them ever. And, you can be completely blind to the concept applying to you too and/or stay blind to your own pathology. It’s another really cool mental gymnastics field.

    “whether a historical Jesus existed at all” Honestly, history’s accuracy ends the day the last person alive during the event dies. It may die before that if ther person deliberately skews the memories or interpretation of what happened. Every bit of history is taken on faith—if not of the existence of something, then the interpretation thereof.

    People, if they were honest, would admit much of life is about faith in the unknown. Forget religion, it applies to philosophy, history, interpretation of paleontology, emotions, interpretations of theoretical physics, interpretation of the significance of probability models, psychology, etc, etc. Welcome to reality. Deal with it.

  2. Ken

    RE: “There we have it: probability proving two diametrically opposite conclusions. Alchemy indeed.”

    THAT is giving alchemy a “bad name.”

    Alchemy, the idea of transforming base metals to gold, and some medical potions … actually has some interesting merit from a number of perspectives. There’s some evidence that some alchemists may have stumbled onto electroplating. Others might have concocted some moderately useful medicines. And, of course, the most pragmatic use appears to have been as a means of circumventing taxes.

  3. Ken

    RE: “….about … proving or disproving the existence of God. …”

    Ever notice how the theme about proof/evidence for/against gets considerable attention while a more obvious consideration does not: Why does the Supreme Being make his existence so dubious rather than simply ‘coming out’ and revealing himself?

    There’s a paradox in that: http://www.futilitycloset.com/2016/02/21/the-revelation-game/

  4. John B()

    Poor Richard Carrier

    Only a decade? Rather chintzy with your rosary.
    (More impressed by Judge Kavanaugh’s little girl saying a prayer for Dr Ford)

    And poor Richard Carrier gets ridiculed by other atheists

  5. acricketchirps

    More or less we all turn our backs on God and demand that he show himself. When he does we turn away again.

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    What exactly does it mean for a universe to appear “designed,” whether because it was/is or because it just seems so?

  7. Richard A

    O’Neill’s phrase is often “fawning minion.”

  8. Michael 2

    Ken asks “Why does the Supreme Being make his existence so dubious rather than simply ‘coming out’ and revealing himself?”

    What would that look like? Hello everyone, I am the Supreme Being! If he is willing to do that for you and for me, he would do it for everyone, at which point he would not seem particularly supreme. Rather ordinary; as common as air.

    “SB prefers the two outcomes in which P believes in SB’s existence (because that’s his primary goal), and of these two outcomes, he prefers the one in which he doesn’t reveal himself (because that’s his secondary goal).”

    I have no way of knowing the Supreme Being’s primary goal. This game theory or bit of logic necessarily assumes that is the case.

    If an omnipotent God wanted everyone to believe in him, then it would be so, instantly and without deviation. Since it appears people do not universally believe in God (and vary wildly in what that word means) he is either not omnipotent or what he wants is something else entirely with belief somewhat incidental the process.

  9. Joy

    “If an omnipotent God wanted everyone to believe in him, then it would be so, instantly and without deviation. Since it appears people do not universally believe in God (and vary wildly in what that word means) he is either not omnipotent or what he wants is something else entirely with belief somewhat incidental the process.”

    That is the way I think about God. If he exists, which I believe he does. He is unrecognisable from the angry vengeful, pop out eyed ghoul to surprise you, old tyrant character or so much nonsense spoken by frustrated evangelists and inquisitors.
    God is omnipotent,
    “All things are possible with God”
    but he allows freedom. With freedom comes all the known desirable and undesirable effects. To allow freedom he must limit his power. Like a child learning to ride a bike has to be let go. Michael is right about his purpose which is not known to us except perhaps our purpose, which is not certain but can be hinted at through reference to divine revelation and to the bible’s New Testament.

    God does not punish people. People do that, and to themselves. They also confuse corporal punishment with a philosophy of world governance. Separate worlds, separate domains. Only God permits the latter.

    It makes sense to me but only without the scientology style, or modern inquisition style mind bending of all varieties tried by ‘desperate to save souls’ types.
    To save a soul, save a life.
    Only God can save a soul.
    In that sense, those who don’t believe in God are then all in the same category of responsibility. To each other.
    Some people just don’t notice God’s presence and that must be noted by God, along with all the accompanying reasons.

    God is not like an inquisitor, or a laughing ghoul.
    Things resembling that don’t resemble God.

  10. look

    You really didn’t address why Bayes Theorem does not work point by point here concerning this particular subject. Maybe this is why you look scared to touch this, in Carrier’s eyes? All you did was describe how butthurt you are, because he doesn’t consider your statement of your position to be proof of your position.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    Good thing Catholicism don’t teach a Supreme Being. It holds that God is Being itself, not “a” being, supreme or otherwise.

  12. Joy

    On The Importance Of Being Earnest:

    Mystery must be part of the purpose.
    Or God, as some atheists have pointed out, didn’t do a good job of showing himself clearly enough.
    Since this isn’t the case, that he is obvious to everyone, or even likely as not, then some other purpose must be assumed than to be easily proved by sophistry and philosophical ‘proof’.

    Neither will brow beating or any other verbal cheating or rhetorical tool suffice. That will produce false confessions of faith, which are often apparent, and also a kind of group mentality, where only pseudo-fellowship can sustain that faith. NOT the same as saying fellowship doesn’t mater or isn’t important. It’s the quality, not the quantity.

    It’s not enough that someone else believes strongly, whoever they are. It is a comfort, at times, but it isn’t enough for those who want to believe in God but have an intellectual inability to do so. Thomas Hardy was one of those.

    It takes a true christian to sustain and restore the faith in Christianity.
    It takes an inquisitor to try and beat it out of them. “draw no blood” and all that. Nothing changes if the dogma is fixed.

    Twas ever thus…

  13. Michael 2

    YOS writes: “Good thing Catholicism don’t teach a Supreme Being.”

    http://www.catholicbook.com/AgredaCD/MyCatholicFaith/mcfc003.htm [quote] God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, Who made all things and keeps them in existence.

    “It holds that God is Being itself, not a being, supreme or otherwise.”

    [Quote, same source] What is a spirit? — A spirit is a being that has understanding and free will, but no body, and will never die.

    I prefer a simpler reading of scripture, one that has a God, a Son of God, and a Second Comforter; someone to pray to. That they are independent actors seems well enough established. That is my belief.

  14. Joy

    “I prefer a simpler reading of scripture, one that has a God, a Son of God, and a Second Comforter; someone to pray to. That they are independent actors seems well enough established. That is my belief.”
    I would agree and add, but whether they are separate actors is their concern. By this I mean it isn’t important to anyone but a theological war gamer.
    They are divine, which is the key, in my way of looking at it.
    When considering someone who has died, which I have had cause to do rather a lot in the last few years, I think it is the Holy spirit which appears to answer.
    Within minutes, and with spectacular humour and accuracy in one cherished example.
    We don’t need to know all but that death is not the end. God is all knowing, always there, and when you doubt he can show you anything discernable from the noise, he makes you smile and proves you wrong.

  15. Ye Olde Statistician

    I’ll see you internet and raise you one Aquinas and a bishop:

    To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual—however supreme—among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

    It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the gods were exalted, immortal, and especially powerful versions of ordinary human beings. They were, if you will, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from regular people. They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

  16. Joy

    Prometheus is said to have believed God is the infinite ocean ob being.
    So, it’s an old idea. Known to anyone taking an interest in Greek mythology…just as those interested in Zeus fantasies, not me.
    Michael 2 hope you see this,
    Regarding the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: you might be interested in listening to this short and simple, everyday and non mystical, non arcane explanation at the start of this interview.
    I hope it finds the right video.
    Just seems reasonable to me that they are all of once source and purpose. When the Holy Spirit is encountered, it is the presence of God through the Holy Spirit, Second comforter, who Jesus spoke of.
    Without such encounters I would find it almost impossible to rely only on the ‘theory’ of God.

    Dr. Keith Ward on Christ and the Cosmos – Part 2 – trinities 110

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *