Thursday, April 26, 2012

Prior probabilities

π -ness Envy? The Irrelevance of Bayes’s Theorem

by rjosephhoffmann

I was reminded of the danger and potential irrelevance of imposing non-literary templates on the biblical material by a former student, whose comments on the use of Bayes’s theorem are significant because (a) he is not critiquing the use of this device as a New Testament scholar: he is a PhD candidate in mathematics and is properly reckoned a prodigy in pure mathematics; and  (b) he is not a Christian.
I personally find his comments devastating to the use of the theorem as an assist to the modal approach to the Bible.  But I’ll leave it to others to decide:
“Is this insistence [Carrier] of trying to invoke Bayes’ theorem in such contexts a manifestation of some sort of Math or Physics envy? Or is it due to the fact that forcing mathematics into one’s writings apparently confers on them some form of ‘scientific’ legitimacy?
The fact of the matter, as far as I know, and as I thought anyone would realize is that Bayes’ theorem is a theorem which follows from certain axioms. Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parmeters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?
Secondly, is it compulsory to try to impose some sort of mathematically based methodological uniformity on all fields of rational inquiry? Do there exist good reasons to suppose the the methods commonly used in different areas that have grown over time are somehow fatally flawed if they are not currently open to some form of mathematization?
If this kind of paradigm does somehow manage to gain ascendency, I assume history books will end up being much more full of equations and mathematical assumptions etc. While that will certainly make it harder to read for most (even for someone like me, who is more trained in Mathematics than the average person) I doubt that it would have any real consequence beyond that.


  1. Second point was very good. Thanks for linking this.

  2. "he is a PhD candidate in mathematics and is properly reckoned a prodigy in pure mathematics"

    Kinda makes me wonder who Hoffman's former student is.