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Accusing Richard Carrier of bias is a shallow fallacy

March 30, 2015

My recent post on the potential ‘bias’ of Richard Carrier has created a bit of a storm. I’ve been accused of ad hominem attacks of being ‘shallow’ and proposing a fallacy.

I’m delighted for this backlash in in one way because it removes the objection of ‘bias’ against accepting the Gospels as accurate history. Some people say that we shouldn’t accept the Gospels as history because the writers were biased, e.g. Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion writing about the New Testament authors asks, ‘Were they unbiased observers, or did they have an agenda that coloured their writing?’ (p.92)

After the backlash I received I on my Carrier post, I would then use exactly the same arguments to suggest that this is a shallow ad hominem fallacy. Dawkins thus has no basis for making this accusation.

Similarly Lawrence Krauss once wrote in response to his first debate with William Lane Craig that,

‘Craig argued that most New Testament scholars believe in the resurrection. Even if this were true,[…] this of course is simply proof that New Testament scholars have an a priori faith that guides them.’

Effectively he is accusing the scholars of bias – and hence this bias invalidates their opinion. Krauss has misrepresented what Craig actually said, but the responses to my article on Carrier’s potential bias demonstrate that Krauss’ objection to accepting the opinion of New Testament scholars is also demolished. To criticise me for saying that Carrier is potentially biased removes this objection.

Hence the accusation of bias against Richard Carrier is a shallow fallacy – as is accusing New Testament writers and scholars of bias.

As I have reflected further on this topic, I did want to clarify and expand on a couple of points.

1. Carrier may be right about Jesus. His professional arguments for Jesus stand and fall on their merits, as do all arguments made for a particular proposition. Yet we do need to acknowledge that he does have reasons other than his scholarly research to conclude the way he does. Now these other potential ‘biases’ do not for a second invalidate his arguments (which contrasts with Krauss’ opinion above who dismisses the conclusions of scholars because of their ‘a priori faith’). However the extent to which these personal influences affect his conclusions is difficult (it not impossible) to determine. Only Carrier himself can ultimately admit the extent to which his personal beliefs impact his professional work. Although, as I’ll say in the next point, even this can be tricky to determine.

2. We are complex and all carry cognitive biases. Now these cognitive biases shouldn’t affect our academic work should they? But I think we’re more complex than that and sometimes our moral prejudices do impact our professional conclusions. Now of course we will all respond and say that they don’t, but I think we’d be a little naive to suggest that we can adjudicate a situation whilst completely removing all cognitive bias. Is anyone completely neutral? Can we determine when we’re selecting certain pieces of information? This is the nature of cognitive bias – I think we have to acknowledge that we can and are susceptible to this.

3. Many people reject the Christian message on ‘moral’ grounds. Hugh Ross writes in the back of his book The Creator and the Cosmos that after presenting the message of his book to four physics professors he asked their response. Ross asked if it was rational to believe in Jesus and one said ‘yes it was, but he wasn’t yet ready to be that rational’ Now whether or not it’s rational to believe in Jesus is another topic, the point I’m making is that recognising that it was rational to believe in Jesus, the physics professors outlined other reasons to reject him. One confessed that he was unwilling to give up sexual immorality. This particular physics professor’s morality affected his view of Jesus.

I knew of another story of a woman who walked away from the faith and said it was all fairy tales after she had engaged in extra-marital sex. So there is a sense in which we must be aware that the moral domain can and does impact our assessment of the Christian message.

4. [updated] Carrier’s academic views are extremely contrary to to the prevailing opinion of academic scholarship. Carrier’s Jesus myth views are rejected by virtually all academic scholars. Even skeptic Bart Ehrman is highly critical of Carrier’s work. Now, I’m not trying to diminish the soundness of Carrier’s academic work solely because of his personal life. Yet it is interesting that he is about the only academic promoting the Jesus myth view in the weight of overwhelming consensus to the opposite. We can assess his arguments, but given that they are so unconvincing to the majority of the academy, we must ask why does he come to that view?

Similar arguments could be made for why we reject Young Earth Creationism. YEC is  rejected because of the weakness of their arguments and their lack of acceptance by the scientific community. But also they are rejected because they are based on ‘irrational religious dogma’ i.e. the proponents are biased. This is exactly what Bryan Frances wrote in Disagreement [a new text on understanding Disagreement]. He writes on pages 96-97 that one reason he believes in evolution is because in almost all cases in which someone disputes evolution they are doing so because they are being heavily influenced by ‘irrational religious dogma’. Interestingly Frances here seems to be saying that one reason to reject those who disbelieve the consensus are for reasons other than the arguments themselves. i.e. they are biased. Could a similar case be made for rejecting Carrier’s views? I’m not saying it must, but it can’t be dismissed.

So of course Richard Carrier’s academic work must stand and fall on its merit – to accuse him of bias would be a shallow fallacy, as would rejecting the works of the New Testament authors and scholars because of their “biases”. Yet we must be wary of the various biases that do affect us us all, we are never completely neutral and must all be aware that there are times that, ‘what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.’

Note: Point 4 was not in the original post and Point 1 has been modified and clarified.

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From → Comment, New atheism

15 Comments
  1. Rob,

    1. You *did* accuse Carrier of bias: “He has revealed himself no longer an unbiased observer just ‘examining the evidence’ ”
    2. You have tried to defend one use of the ad Hominem fallacy by using another: the fallacy of Tu Quoque, which is a type of ad Hominem: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tu_quoque If atheists have argued ad Hominem (and I’m not so sure that the examples you’ve used show that they have) then that still cannot justify you doing so.
    3. It is not only permissible, but it is plain common sense, to draw attention to someone’s lack of impartiality if all we have to go on is their word that x is the case. If Carrier all were saying was “Jesus is a myth. Take my word for it!” then we would be quite right to answer “Why should we take your word for it? You are not impartial!” But the whole point is that Carrier *doesn’t* suggest we simply take his word for it. He presents reasons and either those reasons are good or they aren’t. His potential biases are neither here nor there.
    4. We do all have our own biases. You are biased, as you have openly admitted that you find comfort in the Christian world view. But that does not mean that your arguments in support of theism/Christianity should be dismissed or even doubted simply for that. I have not, and I never would, attempt to refute any of your arguments by referring to your biases.

    • Frances.

      Thanks for the comments. I’ll go through your comments.

      1. Thanks for pointing out. My wording there was a bit clumsy. I’ve now adjusted it to say ‘neutral’. Perhaps I accused him of bias? Maybe it’s hard to write a post like that and not end up accusing someone of bias. The purpose of the post was to point out that he has reasons (other than scholarship) to conclude the way he does. Again, I reiterate, his arguments stand or fall on their own merit, and I would suggest that his arguments are weak in many places (but that is a different post).
      2. I take that point, but I’m now wondering if you think that Krauss and Dawkins were incorrect in making their assertions?
      3. Perhaps, but the world is more complex than that. I realise Carrier advances reasons, but there is so much interpretation and so many assumptions to make that our personal biases and assumptions do come into play (whether we want to or not).
      4. I tend to agree here, but I don’t think that my Christian worldview is true because I find comfort in it. I’m not trying to refute Carrier by suggesting that he is simply biased. I’m not trying to refute Carrier at all in these posts. I’m pointing out that he’s not neutral and that may impact his arguments and methodology and reasoning. Is this impact detectable? It’s very hard to say.

      Just one question – do you think that our biases ever affect our interpretation of facts or our assumptions?

      Thanks again and if my responses are inadequate, please feel free to respond.

      Thanks.

      • Rob,

        “A wheel that can turned, although nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

        I will borrow Wittgenstein’s analogy (which he famously applied to language), but here “the wheel” is the ad Hominem fallacy. The “mechanism” is your argument.

        Time and again the ad Hominem fallacy draws you in. You seem to be unable to release yourself from its snares. You say that Carrier’s arguments must stand or fall on their own merits. And yet you remain convinced that somehow you “add value” by referring to Carrier’s supposed bias. But what value do you add? If his arguments stand or fall on their own merits, what does arguing his bias (or potential bias, or lack of neutrality or whatever) add to your point? What does it achieve that is not already achieved by addressing the flaws in his methodology and conclusions? And how does it achieve it? Show me how the wheel contributes to the working of the machine. Talk me through it.

        I believe that you are going wrong by confusing the philosophically valid use of bias as an argument against accepting an appeal to authority, with the philosophically invalid use which is the ad hom fallacy. See this link: https://reasonresources.wordpress.com/2008/03/12/argument-from-authority-non-fallacious/ and note particularly paragraph 4.

        So, whilst it is perfectly fine to say that you are not prepared to accept Richard Carrier as an authority on the question of Jesus’ historicity and to give as a reason his alleged bias, that takes you no further in debunking his arguments. It simply amounts to this: Richard Carrier’s say-so is not a sufficient basis for accepting the non-historicity of Jesus. But I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that Carrier’s say-so was enough to accept the mythicist claim, least of all Carrier himself, who would not have bothered to write and publish 2 books on the issue if he could simply have declared: “Jesus was a myth. I have spoken. End of.”

        YEC arguments are not refuted by reference to the bias of the YEC, *unless* the argument itself amounts to no more than an explicit or implicit appeal to the authority of the Bible as proving the YEC claim.

        Whether people reject Christianity for “[im]moral reasons” is neither here nor there. It wouldn’t matter, philosophically speaking, if every single atheist ever in the history of the world had rejected Christianity simply and solely because the moral obligations it entailed did not appeal to them. All that matters, philosophically, is their arguments, because people can be right for the wrong reasons.

        With regard to Dawkins and Krauss, it sounds to me as if both arguments were in response to an appeal to authority. As set out in the article I have linked to above, it is perfectly proper to use bias as a reason to reject any appeal to authority.

      • Frances,

        Thanks for your comments, sorry it took a while to respond, but I took time to think about this and also time off over Easter. As usual your analysis is penetrating and I have made some adjustments to my posts as a result. I tend to agree with much of what you have written and I have pondered this a lot in the past week. As you have identified, I seem to be proposing a paradox – Carrier’s arguments stand on their own, yet his personal opinions sully these arguments. This has dominated my thinking for the past week or so as I’ve reflected on this.

        I suppose that I am thinking that it’s true that we make arguments, but we would be naive to suggest that our personal experience doesn’t shape the way we think about and formulate those arguments. None of us come from a position of neutrality (this is why we need good arguments). I don’t think I can demonstrate bias, but at the same time, I don’t think we can remove bias from our thinking. We are complex and our experience has to influence our assumptions and argumentation at times doesn’t it?

        There is a lot at stake for Carrier if Jesus really was the light of the world, and similarly, there is a lot at stake for me if he’s not (hence the reason I have investigated atheism very very carefully). Overcoming our biases is very difficult.

        Your reference to the use of the appeal to authority is helpful. If I have understood you correctly, would the following be potentially valid do you think?

        Assertion: I don’t believe Jesus existed because Carrier is an expert in the field and he asserts that Jesus was a myth.
        Response – but he is biased because he has personal reasons to reject Jesus as unhistorical and is hence not an unbiased expert in the field? (hence neither side has asserted anything to do with his arguments, simply his credentials??) I hope I haven’t misunderstood you.

        Thanks again and I’ll respond to your other comment now.

    • Also, just wondering why you didn’t comment on my third point about the relationship between personal morality and Jesus? Do you accept that people reject Jesus for moral reasons?

    • Frances, Thanks for your penetrating comments as usual. I have reflected further over the day and I have adjusted what I wrote in the post due to your comments (particularly comment 1). Implicitly I have suggested that Carrier was/is biased, but I suppose I don’t mean to accuse him of ‘willful’ bias. I’m not trying to diminish the soundness of his academic work solely because of this. Yet it is interesting that he is about the only academic promoting the Jesus myth view in the weight of overwhelming consensus to the opposite. We can assess his arguments, but given that they are so unconvincing to the majority of the academy, we must ask why does he come to that view?

      Couldn’t a similar argument be made for why Young Earth Creationism is rejected? They are rejected because their arguments, but also because they base their view on ‘irrational religious dogma’ (i.e. they are biased). I actually read that yesterday in a book I’m reading called, ‘Disagreement’ by Bryan Frances (you might like the book – it’s very interesting, have you come across it at all?). He wrote on page 96-97 that one reason he believes in evolution is because in almost all cases in which someone disputes evolution they are doing so because they are being heavily influenced by ‘irrational religious dogma’. Interestingly Frances here seems to be saying that one reason to reject those who disbelieve the consensus are for reasons other than the arguments themselves. i.e. they are biased.

      Perhaps I should include something like that in my original post? It might certainly clarify a few things.

      Thanks for the penetrating comments again.

  2. Matt Dillahunty permalink

    I’ll be shooting a video today with a partial response to this. I’m afraid that you haven’t made your position any better.

    In the case of the gospel authors, we have ONLY claims with no way to investigate. The merit of the claims hinge ENTIRELY on their credibility – because there’s nothing else to evaluate. How do we determine whether or not anonymous authors who are openly engaged in propaganda (whether or true or not) are correct and reliable?

    In the case of Carrier, it’s completely different.

    1. He’s alive and you can talk to him.
    2. He’s written a 700+ page book detailing his calculations and the justification for them.
    3. This was preceded by another large book outlining his methodology.

    Have you read them? Have you analyzed them? Have you addressed the merits of his case in ANY way?

    Or, have you just suggested that he *might* have a bias which *might* factor in?

    “Yet we do need to acknowledge that he does have other reasons to conclude the way he does – he has a reason to be biased. Does this ‘reason’ actually lead him to be biased? Who can tell, only Carrier himself can ultimately admit the extent to which his personal beliefs impact his professional work.”

    Wrong.

    There are a number of ways to address this.
    First, you can address his methodology to address whether or not it’s reasonable.
    Second, you can address his calculations to determine whether or not they’re accurate.

    Because even if he HAD a bias, that is completely separate from whether his method is sound and his calculations are accurate.

    It’s curious that you’ve now made two blog posts on this and you’ve not made one even meager effort to address the merits of his position. Instead, you’ve just played the “Y’all just want to sin card” while failing to realize that this is completely irrelevant to Carrier’s position.

    He could well believe that Jesus existed and not believe that we have accurate information about what he said or did. He could believe he existed and that we have accurate information about what he said, yet reject the claims of miracles. He could believe he existed and that we have accurate information about what he said and accept that he performed miracles – and STILL no believe that Jesus was divine or actually care what he did or didn’t say about sex or morality.

    Carrier had no dog in this race and was only investigating this at the behest of others. If he had concluded that Jesus’ historicity was reasonable, he would STILL be an atheist, STILL be polyamorous – he was both of those things LONG before he reached his current position on the historicity issue.

    Do you have anything of merit, or are you just content to sling mud about sexual practices that you think your God doesn’t like?

    • Wow. Thanks for the video Matt. I hope you present my position fairly.

      You make no comment on Lawrence Krauss’ claim of scholarly bias – do you agree with him?

      I disagree with your assessment of the ‘bias’ of the disciples, mainly because we are complex beings and I don’t think that our motivations are as clear as you make out. It can be very hard to self-assess our own motivations. We don’t quite know the reasons for why we conclude how we do. Also wondering why you cut my quote off when I said, ‘Although, as I’ll say in the next point, even this can be tricky to determine.’ This is an important point – it can be very hard to determine our own motivations. We try to be free from bias, but certain assumptions and experiences colour our experience.

      I have read and engaged with some of Carrier’s work (unpublished on this blog, simply for lack of time) and my assessment is that he makes a series of unjustified assumptions and a number of non sequitur conclusions. I can go through that in more detail, but in any piece of work there are a variety of assumptions and interpretation that must be made. It is interesting that Bart Ehrman is highly critical of Carrier’s work. What do you make of Ehrman’s criticisms?

      As I said, we all have biases – are suggesting that we don’t, or that Carrier doesn’t have *any* biases?

      I think that there might well be biases which might be factored in – as my other illustrations pointed out. You didn’t comment on the physics professor. What did you make of his response where he claimed, ‘he didn’t want to be that rational’? Hence I disagree that bias is separate from method and calculations because at every point there are matters of judgement and interpretation. It’s impossible not to hold some assumptions. The challenge is to see how our biases can be overcome.

      I certainly don’t want to be ‘slinging mud’, but I am pointing out that our moral lives do impact our assessment of Jesus whether we want to or not. I think it’s very difficult to detach ourselves and be neutral when so much is at stake, wouldn’t you agree?

      Thanks for the comments and I’m looking forward to seeing your responses on the other blog posts here as well.

      Thanks for dropping by.

      Rob

    • Andre permalink

      Hello Matt,

      Re: “In the case of the gospel authors, we have ONLY claims with no way to investigate. The merit of the claims hinge ENTIRELY on their credibility – because there’s nothing else to evaluate.”

      If someone comes today, talks to you, and claims to be before Plato and Aristotele, how would you relate to that person? What kind of ways to investigate would you consider satisfying? How would your credibility be evaluated if you would relate that event to someone else who was not there?

      Thanks,
      Andre

  3. Hi Rob,

    **Assertion: I don’t believe Jesus existed because Carrier is an expert in the field and he asserts that Jesus was a myth.
    Response – but he is biased because he has personal reasons to reject Jesus as unhistorical and is hence not an unbiased expert in the field? (hence neither side has asserted anything to do with his arguments, simply his credentials??) I hope I haven’t misunderstood you**

    Absolutely. Spot on.

    • Andre permalink

      Hi F.,

      If Carrier got to the correct conclusion then what’s your point of view about Talmud’s references to Jesus? (I may write why Carrier’s work is self-refuting after your reply.)

      • Hello Andre,

        I don’t know whether Carrier came to the correct conclusion or not. That was never my point.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The potential bias of Richard Carrier | Atheist Forum
  2. An Atheist’s Defense of the Historicity of Jesus | Atheist Forum
  3. Authority, concensus, bias and ad homs | counterapologistblog

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