Richard Carrier, Ph.D., is a philosopher and historian with degrees from Berkeley and Columbia, specializing in the contemporary philosophy of naturalism and Greco-Roman philosophy, science, and religion, including the origins of Christianity. He blogs and lectures worldwide, teaches monthly courses online through his website, and is the author of many books, including his defense of a naturalist worldview in Sense and Goodness without God, his academic case for the non-existence of Jesus in On the Historicity of Jesus, as well as his colloquial summary in Jesus from Outer Space, his work on historical methodology in Proving History, his study of ancient science in both Science Education and The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire, his responses to 21st century Christian apologetics in Why I Am Not a Christian and Not the Impossible Faith, and an anthology of his papers on the subject of history in Hitler Homer Bible Christ.
He has also authored chapters in many other books, and articles in magazines and academic journals, and on his namesake blog, covering subjects from politics and history to philosophy and social justice.
Dr. Carrier’s latest book, Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ, has been called “Carrier’s best, most engaging, and readable work yet.” by author David Fitzgerald.
His most pertinent title, however, is Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism.
For more about Dr. Carrier and his work see www.richardcarrier.info.
How did you become interested in this area?
I became a devout Taoist in high school, and by the time I was completing military service at sea years later I had come to realize Taoism was just as false a religion as any other. And yet Taoism was a complete, coherent, organized worldview of immense utility to me in understanding oneself and the world. So, when I was losing my faith I began asking, well, then, what is true? I immediately began writing notes and research plans for my first book, which a decade later became Sense and Goodness without God, a complete modernized worldview covering all the main branches of philosophy, from semantics and epistemology to metaphysics, aesthetics, morality, and politics, showing how they are all inextricably interrelated and inform each other. Those areas of study cannot be pursued in isolation from each other. The goal we all should have is to have a complete, coherent worldview that is thoroughly evidence-based rather than built on mere desires and speculations, much less uninformed traditions.
At the same time as all of that, I was getting more involved in movement atheism and counter-apologetics, where questions of philosophy not only came up for study and investigation a lot, but where having well-founded solutions to all the major questions was of inestimable value in exploding false worldviews, both religious and secular. The mutual drive to build a complete, evidence-based worldview, and to continually question it to ensure its accuracy and coherence, was thus further inspired as my continual goals of defeating false belief systems and building and hewing my life to the worldview that could claim the greatest probability of being true given the information available to us.
A third track inspiring this life goal was my profession as a historian, which I acquired in graduate school after military service. I studied methodology and soon discovered that we need a coherent, defensible epistemology of history. This led to Proving History, my first peer reviewed monograph in the philosophy of history. But it became apparent that what I had learned of worldview theory applied here as well: you can’t construct a valid epistemology or methodology of history without working out where things stand in every other branch of philosophy, from semantics and epistemology generally, to, again, metaphysics and aesthetics, even morality and politics. Thus, the pursuit of philosophy became just as important to my career as a historian.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
Besides what I already discussed, the fact that all fundamental branches of philosophy must be well studied to get correct conclusions in any one of them, the next most important idea I aim to convey to everyone is that critical thinking, which is essential to having reliable beliefs, rests on a counter-intuitive foundational principle that the only way to know whether you are right about anything, whether any belief you have is true, is to make every honest and powerful effort to prove it false. Because it is only by failing to do that that you can ever have a justified confidence that any belief is true. If all you do instead is aim to “verify” your beliefs, rather than falsify them, your beliefs will never be reliable.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
Always start with actual particulars and build abstractions and generalizations from them; never just start with abstractions and generalizations and reason from there. Because the truth resides in the particulars, and if you skip a careful study of those, it is too easy to leap to abstractions and generalizations that are inaccurate or false or fail to reliably track reality. So, of every philosophy problem or question, always ask, “What is a real-world example of this?” and then go and collect as many of those real examples as you can, and study the question from there. And this means not hypothetical examples (so-called “thought experiments”; as useful, albeit perilous, as they may be), but actual ones. Actual real things, affecting actual real lives. Always ground your philosophy in reality. That is the only way to ensure it tracks reality.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
I don’t typically argue by quotation. But I have coined a few bon mots that I find myself having to repeat quite a lot, because they keep being pertinent. Perhaps top of that list is, “You can’t change what a thing is by changing what you call it.”
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
To learn more about my philosophy, the first place to start would be my books Sense and Goodness without God and Proving History, and my website’s categories drop-down menu (at richardcarrier.info) has several options in that subject, including just simply “philosophy.” There is also an article there, my Typos List for Sense and Goodness without God, which besides basic corrections includes an outline of what changes there have been in my philosophy since that book was published.
But if one wants to become a philosopher in their own right, also on my website (among the top margin menus) I provide a starter list of recommended readings for anyone who wants to get their own start as a philosopher, by which I mean for the purpose of building one’s own reliable worldview; actually being a philosopher, as opposed to pursuing philosophy as a profession. The latter I typically don’t recommend, as it doesn’t pay well and buries your life in tasks almost none of which consist of actually doing philosophy, and academia has a tendency to destroy the creativity and breadth of interest in anyone immersed in it. Most “professional” philosophers too often end up narrowing their interests and pursuing them with blinders on rather than building worldviews or devoting their pursuit to practical application in human lives.
Philosophy should be your religion, your devotional faith-pursuit. And though one can do that and pursue it professionally at the same time, counter-intuitively, you might find it easier to do if your professional life were consumed in a more productive passion, and philosophy were your personal life-project.
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.
Well, of course that would be an experience worth having. But really, I’d just use it as an opportunity to explore ancient history roundabout, as my Columbia University dissertation was on the social and intellectual history of ancient Greco-Roman science, philosophy, and religion. So I’d be even more excited to visit important artifacts of the era, from the Antikythera Mechanism at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, to the inscriptions and ruins of the great temple hospice of Asclepius in Epidaurus.
In light of that, if I did lecture at the original site of the Academy, I would probably speak on ancient contributions to the modern epistemology of science, and how only some of Plato’s students went on to make real progress on that, and by largely rejecting most of Plato’s ideas in philosophy—most prominently, Aristotle. I think it would be a living act of poetry to lecture on this point at the Academy, and then lecture the next day on Aristotle’s legacy through his successor Strato at the original site of the Lyceum that both men once ran!