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#600 Is Being the Best Explanation Good Enough?

October 14, 2018

Dear Dr Craig,

In your debates on the resurrection of Jesus, you have argued that he resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of the evidence because it passes the criteria of the best explanation better than the alternatives. Let us assume, for the argument's sake, that you are correct on this.

My question is the following: How would you respond to the objection that even if the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of the evidence, it does not imply that it is the true explanation or that we have to believe it? After all, it is epistemically possible to have, let us say, 3 competing hypothesis (H1, H2 and H3) for account to evidence E and just one of them (e.g. H1) is the best hypothesis (in comparison with the other two), despite of H1 being false or unacceptable on other grounds (philosophical or theological).

Note that the best explanation is just "the best" in relation to the competing hypotheses that we have in mind, but perhaps none of the hypotheses considered is correct. . . . The point is that the best explanation does not imply that the explanation is the true one nor that we are rationally compelled to accept it nor that we should believe it.



Dr. craig’s response


Wow, the 600th Question of the Week! Your question, Gunter, is a worthy one for that august status. In his classic Inference to the Best Explanation (2004), Peter Lipton deals with this very question, so you may want to look at what he has to say there.

You’re quite right that, theoretically speaking, being the best explanation is not enough to show that the explanation is true and deserving of assent. All of the hypotheses could be improbable, so that each one is more probably false than true.  Suppose H1 has a probability of 36%, while H2 has a probability of 33% and H3 a probability of 31%.  Then even if H1 is the best explanation, it is probably not true and so should not be embraced.

In practice, however, such a situation would be rare, since a hypothesis having great explanatory power, explanatory scope, plausibility, etc. and so exceeding its rivals in these explanatory virtues that it is unlikely that any of them would come to exceed it, is probably true, as well as the best. I think that this is, in particular, the case with Jesus’ resurrection. It’s not just the best explanation of a bad lot; it is a really good explanation!

So if our explanation clearly succeeds in meeting the criteria for being the best explanation, then we ought to regard it as true and worthy of assent unless we have reason to think that it is improbable. With respect to the explanation “God raised Jesus from the dead,” I’ve argued that we have no reason to think that this hypothesis is improbable (see my discussion of Hume’s argument against miracles in my recent Defenders’ lectures on Doctrine of Creation ##18-19). Therefore, its being such a good explanation of the evidence is sufficient grounds to regard it as true and worthy of assent.

Now of course, if you have “other grounds (philosophical or theological)” for thinking that the hypothesis is false, then you shouldn’t accept it. But these will likely have already been considered in assessing the proposed explanation according to the criteria of plausibility and its accord with accepted beliefs. In any case, I’ve argued that in the case of the resurrection hypothesis we have no such grounds.

This situation is by no means unique to theology.  Rather what I’ve said here applies to ordinary cases of assessment of scientific and historical explanations.

- William Lane Craig