The Improbability Trap

So, over at Tippling Philosopher, Jonathan MS Pearce posted about doubts about the Easter story, and specifically in this post about naturalistic explanations for the supernatural happenings around Easter. He quotes Bart Ehrman talking about a completely made up explanation where some followers moved the body, got caught by soldiers, attacked, and were killed by them. Ehrman finishes with this:

Is this scenario likely? Not at all. Am I proposing this is what really happened? Absolutely not. Is it more probable that something like this happened than that a miracle happened and Jesus left the tomb to ascend to heaven? Absolutely! From a purely historical point of view, a highly unlikely event is far more probable than a virtually impossible one…

But this is more than “highly unlikely”. There is, in fact, absolutely no reason, even historically, to think that this actually happened other than that it was possible. There are no accounts — at least as far as I know and there is no suggestion that there were in the quote or in the post — that suggest this happened. There are no legends of this happening. There is nothing to suggest that this actually happened. In essence, Ehrman simply made this explanation up. And yet, somehow, he wants us to believe that this completely made up explanation, with nothing to suggest it, is still more probable than what the accounts that we are using to determine that there’s even an event to consider are saying. So you can invent a story that doesn’t align with and is not informed by any of the actual accounts, and if you consider the explanation in the accounts sufficiently improbable you can declare that yours is more probable.

Pearce echos this sort of analysis:

Now, you can claim that some of these interpretations or theories or claims are inherently improbable. They may even be utterly wildly improbable. But that still puts them in the category of being far more probable, and with higher prior probability through precedence, than a dying and rising incarnate god-figure, who prays to himself and sacrifices himself to sit on his own right hand which somehow pays for the sins of humankind, which he created and had ultimate control over, for all of time.

So, again, he can invent interpretations, theories and claims that are wildly improbable and yet are still more probable than the supernatural explanation given in the actual accounts. Given this, it’s hard to see how anyone could ever demonstrate that a “supernatural” explanation is the one that we should accept, even provisionally. After all, in response the naturalist can simply invent an explanation and declare it the winner, simply because it’s naturalistic and doesn’t contradict the evidence. Given that you can almost always come up with an alternative explanation that is consistent with the known facts, this means that the naturalist can always invent an explanation that they can use to claim that the supernatural explanation isn’t the most probable explanation.

Something has gone wrong here, and I blame David Hume.

Hume rather famously made an argument that if someone tells you that they’ve experienced a miracle, it is at least in general more reasonable to argue that the person is lying rather than accept that they really experienced a miracle, no matter how truthful you thought they were, because it was always more likely that they were lying than that they actually experienced a miracle. This was based on the idea that miracles, by definition, are wildly improbable events — that’s how we know that something ought to be called a “miracle” — and so pretty much any other explanation has to be more probable. If it isn’t, then it would be an actual miracle itself. Of course, the problem here is that while miracles are supposed to be wildly improbable for natural or even human agency, they aren’t improbable when interpreted as an act of God. So we have reason to think that God could and would do that, and no reason to think that the cause could be natural or human. Thus, if it happened, it is more probable that God did it than that anything else did. Thus, the improbability argument works against Hume: once we’ve established that the event occurred, any explanation other than God is, by definition, more improbable.

So Hume takes the first step towards denying the event itself using probability. But if you have no reason to think that the person is lying to you or hallucinating, then you have no reason to posit it just because you don’t like or don’t want to accept that that event actually happened. So by Hume’s argument, it is more reasonable to believe that someone you know doesn’t lie and who has no reason to lie to you about this event is lying because if you accept that the event occurred you’d have to accept the supernatural explanation that has consequences that you don’t like. It’s one thing to say that you need more than one person’s word to accept that it happened, or that you disagree with their interpretation of what that event implies, but quite another to say that you don’t think it happened simply on the basis that the consequences of it happening are things you don’t like.

And we can see this carried on in the comments in this post. They consider the supernatural explanation so unlikely that they can prefer any other explanation, but all of those explanations require first dismissing the event itself. In short, they argue that Jesus was never really resurrected, and all of their explanations are aimed at demonstrating that. Now, while it’s true that the evidence for the resurrection isn’t as solid as the account of someone who does not lie, has no reason to lie, and is in a situation where there is no reason to think they were hallucinating, that’s not the argument here. The argument isn’t that the evidence isn’t sufficient, but essentially that the event itself is so outlandish that any explanation other than that the event in question actually happened is to be preferred. And, again, since you can pretty much almost always come up with an explanation that will fit the known facts, this means that there is no way to demonstrate that the event actually happened. Just as Hume could dismiss all evidence up to and including direct testimony from an incredibly reliable source, so to can Ehrman and Pearce dismiss all possible evidence for the resurrection, based entirely on them not thinking that the resurrection happened.

This is what the “improbable” argument is hiding. It’s not an honest intellectual argument, but a way to dismiss and ignore conclusions that you don’t like. At the end of the day, they need to be able to say that there is a way that the supernatural explanation could be more probable than a naturalistic explanation. Given their reasoning in this post, it doesn’t seem like they can do so.

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