Thursday, April 07, 2016

Is there a base rate for the Resurrection?

Village atheists suffer from groupthink. They constantly repeat each other, which means repeating the same blunders. Here's a classic example:

"...if Jesus’s resurrection is the ‘disease’ and the witness report is the ‘test’, we can now do the algebra to decide whether to believe in the resurrection. The base rate for the resurrection is (let’s say) one in 1 billion. The witnesses go wrong only one time in 100,000. One billion divided by 100,000 is 10,000. So, even granting the existence of extraordinary witnesses, the chance that they were right about the resurrection is only one in 10,000; hardly the basis for a justified belief."

 Lydia McGrew said...

The author goes wrong because the resurrection was not, if it occurred, some sort of spontaneous but random event the probability of which is set by a "base rate," like a disease. If it occurred, it was a personal act of God. This argument would be like talking about the number of times you propose to some woman or other in the population, setting a "base rate" by that means, and then disbelieving your fiance because you were so unlikely to propose to a randomly selected woman, so (allegedly) you were unlikely to propose to her! She must have just made a mistake. (People do make mistakes sometimes, yada, yada.) The prior probability for the resurrection should thus be decided on the basis of completely different considerations, such as what other evidence we have about Jesus, whether Old Testament Judaism has independent support, whether Jesus seems to have been the Messiah (based on other evidence aside from the reports of the resurrection), and so forth.

The author also goes wrong because the question of whether the witnesses made an error should _also_ not be estimated in some off-the-cuff fashion concerning "how often witnesses go wrong." Rather, the specific circumstances of _these_ testimonies have to be taken into account to see if _these_ testimonies are well-explained by their "going wrong." That gets us into discussing alternative hypotheses such as hallucination, error, lying etc., which do a terrible job of explaining these testimonies in this historical context.

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