Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Richard Carrier's Grand Claims

I want to take some time here to draw attention to the comments that Richard Carrier has blogged about his own chapters in the recent anthology The End of Christianity. The book, as a whole, is a mixed bag. (I think the same is true of the previous anthology The Christian Delusion.) In my estimation, it's worth reading. But some chapters are more worth reading than others.

However, Richard Carrier thinks much more highly of the book. That's an understatement. He doesn't just think the book rocks, he seems to think that the book is absolutely phenomenal. In his review of the book, he boldly claims:
Delusion was an awesome book. End is even better. Indeed, I think the two volumes together amount to a decisive refutation of Christianity. A bona fide litmus test. No rational person can read both volumes and not walk away a skeptic.
Really? Anyone who reads the books and remains a Christian is irrational? My natural inclination upon hearing this is to point out that if a Christian apologist said the same thing about some Christian anthology, we wouldn't hesitate to roll our eyes. And rightfully so. One can just imagine some such apologist saying:
If you read this book and still don't believe Jesus is the Risen Lord, you need to get your head checked! There's no way for somebody who is sane and rational to read these arguments and not be convinced.
It would be bad enough to say this about any book. Worse still to say it about your own book, or a book where you're one of the main contributors. In fact, I wouldn't just think that the claim was absurd. I'd probably get a strong suspicion that the apologist isn't even worth taking seriously. (Yes, I think some apologists are worth taking seriously.) Of course, Carrier may truly believe that the case against Christianity contained in these books is so air-tight that one would indeed have to be irrational to remain a Christian after reading them. And I suppose he might even be right about that, though I doubt it. But I can't shake the feeling that this is just a paradigm case of overstating the value of one's own work.

But there's more. Regarding his own chapters, Carrier has a tendency to say that he has written "a tour de force" on the topic. In fact, he has explicitly said this about four of the five chapters he's written for the two anthologies--as for the other chapter, he just says that it "demonstrate[s], conclusively, that Christianity is very probably false" and that "rejecting its conclusion requires bold-faced irrationality." So he might as well have explicitly called that one a tour de force as well.

Here's the thing. His chapters are all good, in my opinion. Every one of them is worth reading. But who goes around claiming that their own work is a tour de force? I've occasionally seen people say this about another person's work, but I'm not sure I've ever seen somebody say this about his or her own work. And yet here's Richard Carrier saying this about several of his own papers.

Have a look at what he says about his metaethics paper in particular:
The last of these is "Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them)," a formal, peer-reviewed philosophical defense of my moral theory in Sense and Goodness Without God. This shall be for a long time the go-to chapter for arguing and defending my theory of moral facts. It includes deductive syllogisms establishing every key point, and extensive argument and references. There is no room left for any rational objection. To those keen on that issue, I believe this chapter alone justifies the price of the book. As per my usual style, I aimed to make it a tour de force on the subject.
A tour de force in metaethics by Richard Carrier? (No offense intended!) A paper so well-argued that "there is no room left for any rational objection"? I imagine that few people in the field of philosophy would be able to pull off a feat so great. Fewer still would proclaim that those who object to the arguments must be irrational. Carrier must think pretty highly of himself.

My guess is that I could find other instances where Carrier has made grand claims like this. So I'll update this post with other such instances I find, or others that readers alert me to in the comments section.

Let me make it clear that my goal isn't really to castigate Carrier, or to convince other people not to read his work. In fact, I think people should read his chapters--all five of them, in the two anthologies. I'd love to see what philosophers who specialize in metaethics think of his chapter on the topic. So I encourage you to read it, and then to share your thoughts. My goal, therefore, isn't to silence Carrier's contribution to the conversation. Rather, it's to point out the obvious absurdity in speaking so highly of one's own work.


  1. This might qualify:

    “And who besides me is the "leading" atheist philosopher defending objective moral facts these days?”


  2. Landon,

    Don't you also find it odd that he gives these lengthy reviews of works to which he contributes? I know that authors have to engage in some amount of self promotion, but he (and Loftus) do it in a very awkward way. It actually is uncomfortable to read!

    That being said, I still look forward to his chapter on ethics.

  3. First, I love your blog. I found your blog after dealing with some very odd and aggressive comments on amazon after reviewing a D. Dennett book positively.

    How about naming a book 'Age of Reason'? That could be seen as inflammatory if you did not agree with that book also.

    At some don't you have to claim that your reasons are well-reasoned? Would that be too brash? You would expect your reasoning to maybe change some minds or what is the purpose? Would the arguments only be for personal edification?

    BTW. I'm not a philospher, by any stretch. I have been told so in no uncertain terms by people that are(?). So, I apologize in advance for my ineptitude with philosophical thought.