Doctrine of Christ (part 22)

March 07, 2012     Time: 00:26:03

Best Explanation of the Facts

Let’s go to the lesson, which is on the best explanation for the facts surrounding the fate of Jesus of Nazareth. You will remember I said that a case for Jesus’ resurrection, historically, has two elements, or steps, to it. First, establishing the basic facts to be explained and then, secondly, asking what is the best explanation of those facts.

We saw that, with respect to the facts to be explained, there is, in large measure, something of a consensus among New Testament scholars today. Namely, (1) Jesus was buried in a tomb by a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea; (2) that tomb was then found empty on the first day of the week following the crucifixion by a group of Jesus’ women followers; (3) thereafter various individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death; finally, (4) the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead despite having every predisposition to the contrary.

The question is – what is the best explanation of those facts? The disciples gave one – we can call it R for the Resurrection Hypothesis – and that is that God raised Jesus from the dead. The question is: is that the best explanation of what happened? It is very interesting when you look at the work of skeptics about Jesus’ resurrection. Their reservations with the Resurrection Hypothesis are not historical reservations – they are philosophical reservations. This explanation is rejected not on its historical merits or demerits but rather because of philosophical objections to it.

For example, Bart Ehrman, whom we have discussed before, agrees with all four of those facts that I mentioned, but he says the historian cannot adopt the Resurrection Hypothesis as the best explanation. He says that even if the resurrection actually happened – he is not saying the resurrection did not occur; maybe the resurrection really did happen – nevertheless he would say the historian cannot infer that that is the best explanation of the facts. Why not? Well, his reason is philosophical. He says a miracle, by definition, is the most improbable thing that could happen and therefore no amount of historical evidence could ever go to establish a miraculous explanation like “God raised Jesus from the dead.” In fact, he says to think that historical evidence could establish this is to utter a self-contradiction – it is to say that the most improbable event is the most probable. That is simply contradictory to say the most probable event is the least probable event.

If you know your history of philosophy, you will recognize that this objection by Bart Ehrman is nothing new. This is the objection that was presented by the Scottish sceptic David Hume in the 1700s in his essay Of Miracles. Ehrman, unknowingly, simply presents a kind of warmed over version of David Hume’s argument against the identification of a miracle. According to Hume, all the evidence of mankind’s experience has established the laws of nature. The laws of nature are true, including dead men don’t rise from the dead. He said therefore no amount of testimony to an event which is a violation of nature’s laws could ever be the best explanation of the evidence. It will simply be overwhelmed, or at least counterbalanced, by all of the evidence for the laws of nature allegedly violated by the miracle. Therefore, you could never be justified in inferring that the best explanation of the facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead because that is so extraordinarily improbable.

This Humean objection has entered into popular culture.1 I would bet every one of you has heard the following claim: “extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence.” The implication is that the evidence for the resurrection is not strong enough to establish that hypothesis. This is basically a reprise of David Hume’s objection – extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence – and therefore you can never have enough evidence to establish so an extraordinary event as the resurrection of Jesus. This is just a popular slogan that encapsulates David Hume’s argument.

A somewhat different objection that I want to raise now – we will look at both of them in a moment but I want to get both of the objections on the table – oddly enough and perhaps unexpectedly comes from Alvin Plantinga. Alvin Plantinga has not been very sympathetic to historical apologetics. He prefers that belief in Christian claims like the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus be rooted in the testimony of the Holy Spirit rather than in historical evidence. When you read the Scripture, the Holy Spirit bears witness to you that this is true, so that you can justifiably believe in it. But he is skeptical about the value of historical apologetics for events like this. Why is this? He says that the historical apologist faces what he calls the Problem of Dwindling Probabilities. What is that? Basically, what he is saying is that in order to establish something like the resurrection of Jesus, you first have to establish a number of other claims, to show that those are probable. For example, suppose you want to establish that God raised Jesus from the dead. First, you are going to need to establish that God exists, and that will have a certain probability – to be generous, let’s say its 90% certain (0.9). But then, in addition, you will need to establish that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Let’s suppose once again that the probability that Jesus existed is 0.9. The joint probability of both of those together will be 0.9 × 0.9 or 0.81 – still pretty high. But then you will also need to establish, say, that Jesus made certain radical claims about himself, to be the Son of God; and maybe you can show that with 0.9 probability. Then you will need to show things like the historicity of the empty tomb; and let’s suppose you can show that the tomb was empty with 0.9 probability. Then maybe the resurrection appearances will need to be established; and suppose you can show that with 0.9 probability. What happens, as you multiply these, the probability of all of them just gets smaller and smaller and smaller. There is this dwindling probability. In fact, after just seven steps of 0.9 probability, you are already going to be less than 50%, which makes it less probable than not that Jesus rose from the dead. So he thinks that the Problem of Dwindling Probabilities is a major obstacle for the attempt of certain people, like Richard Swinburne in particular, to establish the probability of the Resurrection Hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.


Question: I always wondered about this. The probability of anything that actually occurred, if you use prior probabilities and Bayesian logic to try and arrive at the probability of that occurring, it is almost always zero. The probability of me being here today is almost zero!

Answer: You are not raising a comprehension question, but you are raising a very good objection. What you are saying is, we apply this kind of reasoning all the time, and if you did this, this would rule out ordinary events in history – scientific discoveries. There has got to be something wrong with the argument! It may not be obvious – I mean a guy like Plantinga is so brilliant – it is not going to be an evident mistake, but there has got to be a mistake here because as you say, otherwise, we would be sceptics about so much. That is surely unreasonable. So I think you are raising a very good point, and I will comment more on that.2

Question: It seems to me that he is assuming that each belief has to be solely determinant from the prior belief. Does that make sense? So therefore you can do the math. But that is not necessarily the case – it could be greater than that one event and strip away five of the 0.9’s.

Answer: Have you studied probability theory?

Followup: No.

Answer: You sound as though you have! Again, you are not raising comprehension questions, but this is the point that we will see that Tim McGrew at the University of Western Michigan makes in response to Plantinga – something very much along these lines. You are thinking critically, which is good.

Question: Ehrman and Hume – are they saying that our experiences have shown us that the universe is like a closed system under physics or that we have evidence of supernatural claims being debunked but no scientific evidence of supernatural claims being confirmed?

Answer: This is a good question. Neither Hume nor Ehrman is saying that the universe is a closed system and that miracles don’t occur. It is very important to understand that neither Hume nor Ehrman is arguing against the occurrence of a miracle. Rather, both of them are arguing against the possibility of the identification of a miracle. If a miracle occurred, you would never be justified in inferring that a miracle had occurred because it will always be more probable by the very nature of the case that the event is not miraculous and there is some natural explanation. So in one sense they would admit that this might lead you, maybe, to mistakenly miss a miracle. There might be a miracle that actually occurred but because of the nature of historical studies, you would not be able to spot it. It is not an argument against the existence or the occurrence of miracles; it is against the possibility of identifying a miracle and therefore, by implication, against anyone’s ever believing that God raised Jesus from the dead. Even if God did raise Jesus, you can never be justified in believing that.

Followup: It sounds like what they are saying is the rarity of an event entails improbability.

Answer: There does seem to be a problem. I think you are right. It seems they are working with a kind of frequency model of probability. (inaudible off mic comment) Well, yes, because Hume says things like that. That is a problem as well.

Question: Why do they multiply the factors together to come up with an overall average? If you take a coin and flip it, there is a 50% chance it will come up heads, 50% chance it will come up tails. What is the probability on the next flip? It is exactly the same. So if you did that fifteen times in a row, it wouldn’t influence the probability of the next flip of the coin.

Answer: Yes, what you are describing is something called the Gambler’s Fallacy. The Gambler’s Fallacy is thinking that the next event is affected . . .

Followup: Can we rephrase that word from “Gambler’s Fallacy” to something else? It makes it sound bad just on the face of it!

Answer: Well, but that is good when you are exposing fallacious reasoning! The Gambler’s Fallacy says – and this is so easy to fall into, it is almost irresistible – if you are informed that somebody has already flipped a coin nine times and it has been heads every time, what’s the probability it is going to be heads ten times in a row? Surely you’d think it is going to be tails! He’s already had this improbable run of nine in a row, what’s the probability the next one is going to be heads? Well, as you say, 50%! If it is a fair coin, it is not affected by what has gone before. But that is not what we are talking about here! This doesn’t commit the Gambler’s Fallacy because what we are asking here is: what is the probability of flipping a fair coin two times in a row3 and getting heads both times? To get that joint event – two heads in a row – that is going to be 0.5 times 0.5 or 0.25. So you have got a 1/4th chance of flipping heads two times in a row. But what you are correct in saying is if you have already flipped it once and it was heads, that doesn’t reduce the probability of the next one.

Followup: If you are looking at statistical probabilities, to be correct in what you say, you have to be looking at future events. He is not looking at future events; he is looking at past events.

Answer: I don’t see that that is a germane consideration here because he is asking, “What is the probability of the joint occurrence of this series of events, or pieces of evidence?” Whether it is past or future I don’t see that that is relevant. I think that what will be more relevant is what someone earlier said, and that is, what is the evidence base on which you calculate these? But I will say something more about that later on.

Question: Surely the definition of a miracle, if they agree on the definition of a miracle, is that it can’t be explained. That is why it’s a miracle.

Answer: That rules out supernatural explanations, right? You wouldn’t want to say that. Do you want to say that the empty tomb or the postmortem appearances of Jesus can’t be explained? I don’t think you’d want to say that. You’d want to say they can’t be naturally explained, but they could be supernaturally explained.

Followup: Right. So if they are agreeing that it can’t be scientifically explained, why are they trying to scientifically explain it?

Answer: OK. They are not trying to scientifically explain it. People like Ehrman and Hume want to leave you in agnosticism about the resurrection. He doesn’t offer some alternative explanation of the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, or the origin of the Christian faith; he simply says that because of the very nature of the case, historical evidence could never make the most improbable thing the most probable thing. Therefore, you are left in agnosticism. So that will leave you unable to affirm, at least on historical grounds, the Resurrection Hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Question: About extraordinary events requiring extraordinary evidence – if an event is extraordinary, then why are you trying to reduce it to the level of the ordinary?

[off-mic, Dr. Craig loses his contact lens, which someone immediately finds – a serendipitous event used later to make a point!]

Answer: They are not trying to. The Christian is offering a hypothesis to explain certain historical facts that is an extraordinary hypothesis – something that is a miracle, something that has never been observed in the history of the world. So the claim is, in order to believe something so extraordinary, you would have to have evidence for it that is equally miraculous. Therefore, you could never believe in the Resurrection Hypothesis. What I want to show is why that slogan is demonstrably false.

I have a little anecdote to tell you [because of the extraordinary event that just occurred with my contact lens]. I was in a class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in my Masters Program in Philosophy of Religion. It was dead mid-winter in Chicago, it was freezing cold, and there was a pond outside the classroom window that was frozen over with ice. (You know how cold it gets in January in Chicago!) It was a David Hume class and the professor, David Wolfe, was sitting at the front of the class, and he could look out the window and see the icy pond; but we students sitting further back could not see out to the pond. All of a sudden, as he was lecturing on Hume, he looked out the window, and then he looked at us, and he said, “There’s a man coming up from under the ice!” We all rushed to the window to see, and in fact it was some scuba diver that was repairing something under the water there. I thought, what an interesting illustration of Hume’s problem! Here was our professor, whom we trusted, who said there is this extraordinary event happening that we could not see. Suppose we could not rush to the window – should we believe him or not? Hume would suggest, no, you shouldn’t believe the evidence for such an extraordinary event. You should say your professor is lying or making it up or mistaken or something like that. But you wouldn’t believe this extraordinary event that there is this man coming up from under the ice unless you had extraordinary testimony for it. This just illustrated beautifully the whole problem that is raised by Hume’s argument against miracles.4

Question: It has been a while since I read Hume’s Of Miracles, but it seems I remember that Hume speaks with forked tongue because he was anticipating criticism of his philosophy by saying you can apply the same ideas to anything scientific. There are no guarantees that the same laws will apply as they did in the past. He says even though there is no guarantee I am going to take the stairs, I’m not going to walk out the third story window.

Answer: There is a very famous passage in Hume’s essay where he gives the example, I think, of the Prince of Siam, who gets reports from travelers whom he sent out that water can exist in the form of a solid.5 They have journeyed to the far north, and they have seen ice, and they come back to the man living in the tropics and say, “Water can exist as a solid!” Now this goes against all the evidence for the laws of nature that this man has ever seen. Therefore, applying Hume’s principle, the Prince of Siam ought never to believe these travelers’ eyewitness reports of ice that they’ve seen. Hume admits this – he says, yes, that is right: he should not believe the evidence of these people because it contradicts the evidence of natural law that was available to him! That ought to make one feel a little bit uncomfortable about this argument, in that it is going to rule out, not just supernatural events, but ordinary natural events. You could never discover anything new that went against what you thought were the laws of nature.

Comment: As a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I just have to quote that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Answer: Yeah, that is a very famous Conan Doyle quote, isn’t it?

Question: The biggest problem I have with Hume’s argument is that it puts too much responsibility on the historian or the person telling the story. What it means is that as soon as you begin to talk about an event with which you are not familiar, or the people with whom you are not familiar, then you no longer trust anybody or you no longer believe anybody. That seems like the job of the historian is to get past that. In your example of the guy coming up out of the water – it is an extraordinary event that a scuba diver is coming out of an icy pond unless you know that there is an ROTC program and they practice that every single week. To them it is not extraordinary. To say that you lost a contact lens, and some lady from across the room can see it – well, now we know it’s possible! If I go out and tell the story of the contact lens, someone out in the hall is not going to believe me, just because they are not familiar with the situation.

Answer: A number of people have criticized Hume’s approach by saying that the historian has to be open to the uniqueness of the past. To impose the grid of the present over the past is not to really be interested in doing genuine history. You have to be open to novelty, to the unexpected, and to follow the evidence where it may lead, which might lead you to revise some of your judgments that you previously had. These are all points that have been raised against Hume.

Question: Can you reverse the probability and say – this is back to my problem with the Bayesian dwindling probabilities – let’s do it with the probability that it was not true. You do that oftentimes. Say the probability that it was the resurrection is 1 minus the probability that the body was stolen. 1 minus the probability of all of the other theories.

Answer: I hear what you are saying. I think perhaps the response there would be that the sceptic isn’t arguing for an alternative view that these things did not happen. It is really an agnostic view, remember, that the sceptic is arguing for here. He is saying that you, Mr. Christian Apologist, cannot bear the burden of proof to make the Resurrection Hypothesis the best explanation of the evidence.6 So we are left in agnosticism. People like Ehrman and Hume are quite happy to be left there. In fact, sometimes they will say, “You can believe in the resurrection by faith if you want to (ha, ha, ha!), but you can’t say that this is the best explanation or the most probable thing to believe.”

What we will do next time, having laid these objections out, is explain why, in fact, David Hume’s argument is regarded by contemporary philosophers as, to quote John Earman of the University of Pittsburgh, an “abject failure”7 ; that is to say, a demonstrably fallacious argument. I will also show why I think Plantinga’s Problem of Dwindling Probabilities is not an insuperable objection either.8


1 4:59

2 10:15

3 15:21

4 20:17

5 Dr. Craig conflated this with John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding written in 1690 in which Holland’s ambassador describes ice to the king of Siam (Book IV, Chapter 15, Section 5). Hume used a similar illustration involving an Indian Prince (Of Miracles, Part I, Section 89).

6 25:03

7 This alludes to John Earman’s book titled Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (Oxford University Press, 2000).

8 Total Running Time: 26:03 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)