This week I am doing a series on early reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I don’t cover by the end of the first week of July, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
One of those early reviews posted is by Chris Hallquist (at The Uncredible Hallq for Patheos), a notable atheist author who has a master’s in philosophy from Notre Dame. His review is billed as only “initial thoughts” and therefore might be revised or expanded in future posts. If so, I’ll blog those and add links at the bottom here (please let me know if he blogs again on the subject so I can do that). For now, here is my commentary on what he has posted so far.
Hallquist has overall good impressions of the book. But he goes on to make statements that suggest a poor understanding of how probability works (ironically, since he makes the point himself that people often have a poor understanding of how probability works).
Here is what I mean:
- “But if most versions of mythicism can be shown to be very improbable, shouldn’t that lower the overall probability of mythicism?”
That’s like saying if most theories of historicity are improbable, shouldn’t that lower the overall probability of historicity? Yet most theories of historicity are improbable. In fact, that they are is a mathematically necessary truth. For example, if there are ten competing theories of historicity (and that’s not far from the case: Proving History, ch. 1), and all are equally likely, and historicity overall is virtually 100% certain (and it doesn’t matter whether at this stage we are talking about the prior or the posterior probability), then every theory of historicity is improbable–because then every single one has about a 10% chance of being true, which is indeed improbable. Yet historicity overall remains 100% certain.
On the other hand if one theory of historicity is far more plausible than the others (and I would say this is true of the Ehrman model), let’s say it is 90% likely and all others fill the remaining 10% or so, then “most versions of historicity can be shown to be very improbable,” because now the remaining nine theories occupy that 10%, so if they are all equally likely, then most theories have around a 1% chance of being true, which is indeed very improbable. Yet historicity would still be virtually 100% likely (and Ehrman’s theory would still be 90% likely). Thus, Hallquist does not appear to understand how probability works. We’ll see more examples of that shortly.
Imagine saying, “If most theories of motion have been improbable, shouldn’t that have lowered the overall probability of Newtonian mechanics?” As just explained, that is a failure to understand how a prior probability is constructed. The reference classes have to be distinguished: some false theories of motion (e.g. Epicurean; Stratonian) were in fact more probable than others (e.g. Empedoclean; Aristotelian). What you want to compare are not crazy theories with plausible theories, but crazy theories with crazy theories and plausible theories with plausible theories. The existence of crazy theories does not reduce the probability of plausible theories. That’s what calling them plausible means: they are no longer in the reference class of improbable (“crazy”) theories.
For example, in the discussion Hallquist is referring to (OHJ, pp. 52-55) I rule out the hypothesis that Jesus didn’t exist yet the first apostles started right out of the gate claiming everything in the Gospels really happened in Jerusalem and Galilee. I hardly need explain why that is massively improbable. But it’s being massively improbable has no relevance at all to whether the hypothesis I do defend is–that Jesus didn’t exist yet the first apostles claimed to be receiving visions of a celestial Jesus. If Jesus didn’t exist, then the latter is highly probable, for precisely the same reason the former is highly improbable: I accumulate considerable background evidence in favor of the second theory’s prior probability (in chs. 4 and 5); nothing exists comparably supporting even a noticeable prior for the “total instant lie” hypothesis (I can’t think of a single analogous example in all of history; not even the infamous liar Joseph Smith attempted that).
That no background evidence supports the “total instant lie” hypothesis does not allow the inference that no background evidence supports the “visions of a celestial being” hypothesis.
Instead, what we have to do (and logic requires this, as I explain in Proving History, pp. 166-67, 245-55) is divide the “probability space” among all theories within a covering theory (all theories that can be true if Jesus did not exist; literally: all logically possible theories, no matter how absurd). How much of that space is occupied by each theory? Some are so absurd they occupy very little of it (like the “total instant lie” hypothesis). Some are so plausible they occupy a lot of it (like the “visions of a celestial being” hypothesis), representing the fact that the latter is many times more initially probable than the former. I explain this in detail in OHJ, pp. 27-29, and I must assume Hallquist didn’t read those pages, or didn’t understand them.
For more on how prior probabilities work see my commentary on Lataster’s review.
- “In Bayesianism, something is counted as ‘evidence’ for a hypothesis if it raises the probability of the hypothesis.”
Hallquist claims I violate this principle. He gives no examples. I am unaware of any.
Ironically, he thereby violated this principle.
(It’s unclear to me that Hallquist actually understands what it means for e to raise the probability of h; if e is just as likely on h as on ~h, even if e is 100% expected on h, then e does not raise the probability of h; it is therefore not evidence for h; so far as I know–and I was very careful–that is all I ever argue anywhere in OHJ.)
- “Why not, for example, put Jesus in the reference class of apocalyptic preachers, faith healers, and exorcists?”
This statement suggests to me that Hallquist did not read my book. Because I actually address this directly and in detail, with mathematical demonstrations. I even call it “The Alternative Class Objection,” and it is even listed in the table of contents as such! See OHJ, pp. 245-46. I demonstrate there that even starting with other reference classes gets you the same result–because you always have to put the Rank-Raglan data back in. I explain the reason for this in PH, pp. 240-42. I give a direct demonstration of it in OHJ.
The worst kind of criticism is one that is already devastatingly refuted in elaborate detail in the very book being reviewed. And the critic doesn’t even know it.
But I must say the following criticism is even worse, because it is a seriously embarrassing thing for anyone to say:
- “[A]rguing that the prior probability of a historical Jesus is low because Jesus’ story shares many features in common with that of mythic heroes strikes me as extremely dubious. Consider, who is the following paragraph describing?”
Hallquist then gives an example of a historical Rank-Raglan hero. It does not appear he actually does, since I only count those who score above ten out of the twenty two criteria, and Hallquist’s example does not appear to do so. But let’s set aside that gaffe, because it’s just an example of not paying attention to what I actually (and carefully and in detail) argue. The far more galling mistake here is that Hallquist just basically said the same thing as this:
- “Arguing that the prior probability of dying from a vaccine shot is low because lots of people get those shots without dying strikes me as extremely dubious. Consider, I know a guy who died from a vaccine shot.”
Do I really need to explain what’s wrong with that statement?
Only someone who didn’t understand what a probability was could say such a ridiculous thing. Obviously when I say the probability is low, I am actually agreeing that some historical people meet the condition–if they didn’t, I wouldn’t say the probability is “low,” I’d say it was zero. (Rosson made the same mistake, but much less obviously and thus much less embarrassingly.)
And in fact in my math (in chapter 6) I allow for between 1 and 4 people who score above ten on the Rank-Raglan scale to have been historical. So Hallquist is actually stating as a criticism something I actually stated already in the very book he claims to be responding to–only I didn’t make a boner mathematical mistake out of it, like he did. This should not instill much confidence in his ability to reliably critique the rest of my book.
The most amusing irony is that I even did almost exactly the same thing he did: only my example wasn’t Kim Jong-Il, it was Haile Selassie (OHJ, pp. 18-20). Who is actually a better example.
I should also point out that, except when dealing with cross-cultural universals like human biology or economics or social dynamics, we can no longer use modern examples as relevant to the reference class for Jesus (because without a sound reason, we can’t use modern frequencies of anything distinctly cultural as the ancient frequency of it: I explain this mistake in PH, pp. 18, 245). But even if we played that game, Hallquist would lose. Because Superman also fits the Rank-Raglan profile, as do Anakin Skywalker, Optimus Prime, Aragorn, and Captain Kirk: all score above 10. But it would be as invalid of me to use those heroes to argue Jesus is less likely historical, as it would be of Hallquist to use Kim Jong-Il to argue the reverse. The context of all these examples are no longer sufficiently applicable. Although note what would happen if we did what Hallquist wants, and counted all modern examples scoring above 10. Do the math. If you know what a “probability” is, you’ll laugh.
For a complete list of my responses to critiques of OHJ, see the last section of my List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus.