Understated Evidence and the Resurrection of Jesus

[Below is a somewhat reworked version of a post from many months ago here.]

In addressing the viability of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, Jeffery Jay Lowder has argued that pretty much any naturalistic explanation is better than the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead, and suggested that arguments to the contrary are based on the fallacy of understated evidence. By this fallacy he means, following Paul Draper, to "identify some general fact F about a topic X that is antecedently more likely on theism than on naturalism, but ignore other more specific facts about X, facts that, given F, are more likely on naturalism than on theism." Here I will briefly rebut some of Lowder's statements (his original post in full along with subsequent comments here.) He says,

Since we're dealing with inductive logic, what matters is prior probability and explanatory power. C&C [Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti, in "The Great Mars Hill Resurrection Debate"] offer a 1-2 punch against the Resurrection as an explanatory hypothesis. First, R has a vanishingly low prior probability, far lower than any serious naturalistic explanation.

Okay, first I don’t think P(R) is “vanishingly low” unless we cut out certain important facts such as Jesus’ very strong and consistent claims of uniquely divine/messianic status, wide reports of his miracles of healing and exorcism, and his predictions of his own pending crucifixion in Jerusalem (to be followed by his resurrection). This is why I say the prior probability of the resurrection of Jesus, even if lower than comparatively more mundane events, has to be much higher than the probability of anyone else’s resurrection. And of course, if P(R) is much higher than some other probability, then it cannot really be vanishingly low (even the lowest probability is somewhere above zero). Also it seems to me that the estimation of prior probability of an identifiable historical event ought to be substantially low in the first place, given that by definition specific historical events only happen once – which may explain why historians are typically not keen on Bayesianism and probability calculus to guide their research.

Likewise I don’t see why a naturalistic explanation should have a higher prior probability by default (assuming anyone can adequately define what “naturalistic” means beyond “non-supernaturalistic”). For instance, consider a naturalistic explanation involving a huge colony of countless millions of South American army ants that were drawn to the tomb by the decomposing corpse of Jesus by the barest hint of a stray scent, that travelled across the ocean using their own bodies as a bridge (they have been known to cross streams and rivers this way), that combined their efforts to move the stone from the entryway of the tomb and remove the body of Jesus, and then devoured the body, leaving only a skeleton in the desert.

Though seemingly naturalistic (non-supernaturalistic), the South American army ant explanation would be neither appreciably parsimonious nor would fit appreciably well with our background knowledge of how the world works generally. The most we could say for such a scenario is “It’s logically possible.” But my example admittedly is not serious. So I guess what we need is (1) some objective means to distinguish naturalistic from non-naturalistic explanations, and (2) some objective means to distinguish serious from non-serious naturalistic explanations.

As it stands now, I don’t see that a naturalistic explanation for a phenomenon should be any more or less antecedently probable than a theistic explanation. Both God and nature are quite powerful in principle, as both are said by their respective spokesmen to be capable of creating the universe, creating life, imparting consciousness and moral awareness to humanity, etc. Besides, within the same "multiverse" scenario often postulated to explain fine-tuning of the universe on naturalism, anything logically and physically possible is also probable (see "Fine-Tuning Denialism and the Demise of Science"). Anything, of course, includes the resurrection of Jesus. The question, then, is not whether the resurrection has a low prior probability relative to naturalistic explanations, since both naturalism and theism can account for anything that actually happens. The question is which view has greater explanatory scope and explanatory power. Lowder continues:

Second, it's far from clear that R explains the alleged data. By itself, R says nothing about the risen Jesus did after His resurrection. You have unwittingly conflated the Resurrection hypothesis with the New Testament stories / claims of what the risen Jesus did AFTER his resurrection. I agree that what the NT claims happened is possible. Sure, he could have moved the stone, walked out of the tomb, and appeared to different people. But the content of R doesn't include those activities. All R says is that Jesus rose from the dead. .... R is also compatible with the risen Jesus sitting in the tomb indefinitely, basking in his own supreme glory. Or it could be the case that R is true and, after his death, the risen Jesus teleported to central America, appearing to various indigenous people, in a fashion similar to what is reported by the Book of Mormon. Now, I obviously don't believe that happened. The point is that R by itself gives us no more reason to expect one of these 'extra-curricular' activities than any other. .... This much is certain: R does not ENTAIL the data. In other words, the probability of Jesus' crucifixion, burial, empty tomb, and postmortem appearances, CONDITIONAL UPON THE ASSUMPTION THAT R IS TRUE, is less than 1.

Those are good points. And with all that I have a better idea of what C&C were getting at with their suggestion that R falls short of explaining the facts so often cited in support of it. To this I would say firstly that whereas R is admittedly not a complete explanation, it’s at least a partial explanation. So to derive a full explanation we would have to employ a chain of inferences drawn from two widely attested propositions:

J (Jesus) is who he claimed to be: the Son of God, with access to divine power,


P, Jesus promised to resurrect three days after his predicted death and re-commune with his disciples.

Together J and P explain

R, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which (with J and P) explains

E (the empty tomb) and A (postmortem appearances), which (with J, P and R) explain

B, the birth of the church in Jerusalem, which is to say nothing of

C, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus

Thus J * P entail R, and R (with J * P) entails the relevant data, and thus the resurrection hypothesis enjoys great explanatory power. Moreover, R explains the otherwise inexplicable alignment of the data, a diverse set of phenomena restricted to the mid first century and the region of Palestine: the empty tomb of Jesus, the postmortem appearances, and the rise of the early church. Naturalistic alternatives to the contrary have to conjoin a number of disparate ad hoc elements, and leave out others (like Saul’s conversion). This suggests that the resurrection hypothesis enjoys greater explanatory scope than the naturalistic alternatives proposed to date.

So what is wrong exactly with a "supernatural" or "spiritual" explanation for the resurrection? Well, I think some people are simply inclined to equate "nature" with "reality," outside of which lies the "supernatural." But this is misleading. If God exists – and that's the underlying issue here – then God is necessarily part of reality (given the modest premise that anything that exists is part of reality). As we have seen, the real problem here is that naturalists, not supernaturalists, are understating the evidence.


good post Don. your arguments against Lowder's Bayesian tinning are good. I've been dealing with that that the last two or three weeks,
Don McIntosh said…
Thanks (again) Joe. For some reason my last comment disappeared.
Don McIntosh said…
I meant to say more about how God can easily suspend the perceived regularities of the nature He created because both God and His creation constitute a single reality, but maybe I can address it another time.
Jason Pratt said…
As usual, I'm going to say a lot of the problems come from proponents and opponents on either side treating Bayesian Theory (or to be more precise the revised form promoted by an ally of Bayes, which is what is typically regarded as BT now) as a probability math operation -- when it definitely isn't.

It looks like a math operation, and there is a valid math operation that it looks like, and that valid math operation can have some connection to a very particular and limited type of probability estimation. So the confused conflation is understandable; but that doesn't make the conflation any more proper.

One of these days I need to post up an article I was writing long ago on the topic... (Some of it is in the article I linked to, but not all of it.)


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