Can You Prove a Miracle?

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I’m currently taking a week off work, having submitted a draft of my book manuscript (‘The Purpose of Existence: Between God and Atheism’). Sometimes when I take time off, I get lost in a rabbit hole or two. On Easter Sunday, I listened to a debate on my favourite Christian vs. Atheist debate podcast on whether you could demonstrate historically that Jesus rose from the dead. I Tweeted brief thoughts about this, and someone tweeted back at me about a recent six-hour debate on this topic by atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Christian New Testament scholar Mike Lacona. I ended up paying $50 to watch all six hours of it, and would like to share some thoughts about it.

I found the debate incredibly frustrating. There was very little disagreement on the historical facts, apart from whether a miracle occurred. Both accepted that after Jesus died several of his followers had experiences which persuaded them that Jesus had physically risen from the dead (Ehrman thinks there’s good evidence that at least Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalen had such experiences). Rather than disputing the history, a lot of time was taken up arguing about whether it is possible for a historian, as a ‘historian’, to argue for a miracle. This seems to me a very silly thing to argue about. We could define the word ‘historian’ however we wish. Surely the interesting question is what we have reason to believe.

Moreover, there was also no mention of our mathematically precise was of understanding how evidential support works, namely Bayes theorem. According to Bayes theorem, the probability of a hypothesis is determined by two things: evidence and prior probability. The ‘prior probability’ is simply how likely the hypothesis is before we take the evidence into account. It seems clear that whether a case can be made for the resurrection is going to hang on the prior probability of the resurrection. Suppose you’re an atheist who thinks the odds of God existing are one in a billion. You’re obviously going to attach an even lower probability than that to God having raised Jesus from the dead. From that starting point, you’re going to need quite extraordinary evidence to get the probability of the resurrection up anywhere reasonable. And even if there is evidence for the resurrection that is fairly strong by the standards of ancient history, it’s clearly not that impressive. For this reason, I don’t think atheists should be worried about conceding to Christian apologists that there is non-negligible evidence for the resurrection. There is strong evidence for all kinds of things that we nonetheless have absolutely no reason to believe, precisely because the prior probability is so low.

Bayes theorem tells us that if a hypothesis renders the evidence less improbable than it would otherwise be, then the evidence supports that hypothesis. Suppose, for example, that Joan’s DNA was found on the body, and that that’s really unlikely unless Joan is the murderer. It follows that we have evidence that Joan is the murderer, as that hypothesis renders the DNA evidence less improbable than it would otherwise be. On the face of it, it is fairly improbable that several people would hallucinate Jesus being back from the dead, especially when one of them (Paul) was a zealous and violent opponent of the Christian movement. Whereas if Jesus really did rise from the dead and appear to people, then it’s not so surprising that those people would have experiences that persuaded them that he was risen from the dead. It’s pretty plausible, then, that the resurrection hypothesis renders the evidence less improbable that it would otherwise be, and that’s all that’s required, according to Bayes theorem, for there to be evidence for the resurrection hypothesis.

But that doesn’t mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that we should believe in the resurrection. Perhaps the evidence for the resurrection is strong enough to get the probability up from one in a trillion to one in a billion; this still ends up not being a hypothesis we should take seriously. Both Ehrman and Licona agreed that a skeptic about the resurrection needs to have some alternative hypothesis to explain the evidence. That’s simply not true. If we’re dealing with an event that ends up, even after the evidence has been taken into account, being very improbable, then it’s quite rational to say ‘I don’t know what happened, but that didn’t happen.’

To be fair, Erhman did press the old Carl Sagan line ‘Extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence’, arguing that the resurrection is very improbable because it would require violating a law of nature.* But without bringing in Bayesian notions, this is just a rhetorical slogan, and it ended sounding like Ehrman took naturalism to be unfalsifiable. The only mention of Bayes in the whole six hours was Licona saying that evidence can overcome low prior probabilities. That’s right, in principle. But given that, what this debate should have been about is:

(A) What is the prior probability?

(B) How strong is the evidence?

(C) What probability do we end up with as a function of (A) and (B)?

Because they didn’t engage with the Bayesian framework, this discussion spent six hours getting nowhere.

Improbable things happen. And when they do, we often end up with evidential support for whacky hypotheses. If Christian apologists want to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus, then they need to argue for a worldview in which the resurrection of Jesus should be assigned a non-negligible prior probability.

*Actually, I was more on Lacona’s side on the specific point of whether a miracle would violate the laws of nature. That’s because I follow my colleague Nancy Cartwright in conceiving of the the laws of physics as ‘ceteris paribus’ laws, which tell us what would happen in the absence of other causal factors. I’m to be arguing with Sean Carroll about this (again!) on next month’s Mind Chat.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.

8 Comments

  1. Ted Bates says

    Hi. My name is Ted Bates. I am 67 years old. In fact I just turned 67. Today is my birthday. When I was 18 and 19, I was a science student at UC Santa Cruz. On a calculus midterm I received the highest score out of 300 students and the second highest score on an organic chemistry final. I was reasonably intelligent. While I believed the theory of evolution was true, I did not like its implications. Life is m and I am just an accident. I am a thing, I have no personal worth and no one cares. I became extremely depressed and had a mental breakdown. I dropped out of college after my fifth quarter. I felt awful and I was on the brink of taking my life. At the same time I noticed some unusual coincidences. I was driving our truck and about three miles from home it over heated and I pulled over and parked the truck. I started walking home . I was on New York Drive. There were no buildings or anything. Just a dirt path next to a steep mountain. I had only walked a couple hundred feet when I noticed a credit card in the dirt. It happened to belong to my Christian neighbor just about two or three houses up the street from my home. The next day I saw Don Lewis mowing his lawn and I remembered finding his credit card. So I walked up and gave Don his credit card. He gave me a big hug and said this was providence or something like that. I stepped back and said something sulky, “Well I had a long walk home. While I did not really take it to much account, new the Lewis’s were Christians and wondered if God was looking after His people. While I was extremely ill, I continued to have odd experiences that almost miraculous. I also had opportunities to learn about the Bible. It came from different people not connected with each other. I wondered if all this was being orc by God. I was working at Jet Propulsion Laboratory now for the summer as a technical aid in their microbiology department and there met a young typist who was a Christian and I dated her for a time. She invited me to a play at her church. Afterwards we stopped at a cafe for a little something to eat. While she planned that a friend would meet us there and he would share the Four Spirit Laws with me, the only thing he said that connected with me, was he quoted a verse, “Behokd, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone should hear My voice and open the door I will come in and dine with him and he with Me ” In the back of my mind I thought “Have I been hearing Jesus’s voice? That night when I was in my room I prayed “Dear God I don’t know if you exist, but if you do and Jesus is the way to You, I will follow Him and worship Him for the rest of my life. ” I went to bed. The next day now attending Cal Poly Pomona I sat on the ground and leaned against an Eucalyptus tree and read A Sand County Almanqc by Aldo Leopold . He mentioned the book of Isaiah in the Bible I read the first fifteen chapters or so of Isaiah in a Bible I recently received and was quite impressed. Having studied ecology, Isaiah 5:11 described owioke building houses one against each other until there was no room in the land. The farmland would only produce very little. That reminded me about learning that land has a carrying capacity and that if it is not cared for it will stop producing. Also Isaiah 11:12 described that the Jews would be dispersed across the world but in the last days they would return to their homeland. I knew that Israel was reborn on May,14th 1948 and that Jews were returning to their homeland from the four corners of the earth after 1900 years. That impresses me too. There is also a verse that a child would be born to a virgin and she would name him Emanuel. I knew that Jesus was supposed to be born of a virgin and I wondered if this prophecy was about Jesus. Anyway everything came together and I believed. Further the Lord came into my life and 48 years later I am still following my Lord. If you would like to see some an actual evidence for the God of the Bible I published Bible Prophecy and 3: An Urgent Wake-Up Call! I haven’t published it yet but I have formatted on my computer a book Science and the Bible: Evidence for the God of the Bible. I show how Bible prophecies are being fulfilled right before our eyes in our day, and how science and rhe Bible support each other when they are both interpreted correctly. I will mail them to anyone for free. I just need a mailing address. My email address is tbates55@aol.com.

    • Soupy says

      Hi Ted,
      Thank you for sharing! This was very lovely and I’m happy you were able to get out of your depression and found purpose in your life.
      Allow me to share my life story with a similar miracle and freed myself from depression and found purpose through atheism.
      When I was 16, I found out I was diabetic and at that time, the Internet just started and there was not much information out there. Libraries had limited books on it. Everything was written before 1970 and they all said diabetics on average have another 20 years of life left. I went to the doctor and they confirmed, while there’s not much data on youths with diabetes, this is true for adults over 40 at the time.
      That, mixed with your regular teenage depression issues sent me to a dark place where I planned out my suicide. I decided to jump off the pier and drown myself. So on a late night, when the piers were empty, I stood there ready to end it all. Right before I jumped, I looked up and asked out loud, “God, if you exist and you’re listening, give me a sign that I shouldn’t do it.”
      Right then, I saw a shooting star flash across the sky and that snapped me out of it. I sat quietly for a while. Thanked God, and walked home.
      I spent a few years searching for the God I was praying to. Was this God tied to a religion? Or was this a personal God I’m connected to and I didn’t need a religion to fall under.
      All the while though, I was thinking about that night. Did God put that meteor in motion millions of years ago, just so I will look up at that precise moment and rethink my options? What if a lamp post went out at that moment. Would I have taken that as a sign? What about an earthquake?
      What hit me hard though was, what about all the Christians, Muslims, atheist, and others who prayed and did not receive a sign? Were they just not looking hard enough? Did God set things in motion millions of years ago for them, just so they missed the sign? Or did they not matter?
      The fact is, everyone who’s alive today is a miracle. Somewhere within our family tree, we’ve each, most likely had an ancestor, who’ve fought a battle and won. Maybe a bullet or an arrow just missed them. Or they tripped just at the right time and avoided death.
      Somewhere, in our family tree, we had an ape like ancestor that over slept and avoided a hunting predator. Somewhere, a tetrapod ancestor was starving and right before giving up, found some food that kept them going. And what about all the billions and trillions of trillions that weren’t so lucky? That didn’t make it, so that their descendants can contemplate life and God.
      The point is, we are all here today, because we are the ones that made it. We are the ones who saw the signs or missed the signs that allowed us to live another day. There’s been countless of others that weren’t so lucky. Where were their God(s)?
      Humans are natural pattern seekers. Saying luck or chance was involved is unsettling to us. We need to find a way to rationalize things, even appealing to the supernatural if we’re not able to figure it out.
      From there, I was able to let go of God and say, I’m here now, so cherish the moment. If I ever get depressed or sad, I cherish those moments as well. We only have this one life, so cherish it.
      If you’re an atheist and you’re not happy, yeah, why not try out a religion. And if you’re in a religion and you’re not happy, don’t be afraid to keep looking.
      I’m very happy that Ted’s faith gave him meaning and purpose. I’m also very happy that my lack of faith gave me meaning and purpose. Let’s make this world the best world we can for each other.

  2. Ted Bates says

    Hi. My name is Ted Bates. I am 67 years old. In fact I just turned 67. Today is my birthday. When I was 18 and 19, I was a science student at UC Santa Cruz. On a calculus midterm I received the highest score out of 300 students and the second highest score on an organic chemistry final. I was reasonably intelligent. While I believed the theory of evolution was true, I did not like its implications. Life is meaningless and I am just an accident. I am a thing, I have no personal worth and no one cares. I became extremely depressed and had a mental breakdown. I dropped out of college after my fifth quarter. I felt awful and I was on the brink of taking my life. At the same time I noticed some unusual coincidences. I was driving our truck and about three miles from home it over heated and I pulled over and parked the truck. I started walking home . I was on New York Drive. There were no buildings or anything. Just a dirt path next to a steep mountain. I had only walked a couple hundred feet when I noticed a credit card in the dirt. It happened to belong to my Christian neighbor just about two or three houses up the street from my home. The next day I saw Don Lewis mowing his lawn and I remembered finding his credit card. So I walked up and gave Don his credit card. He gave me a big hug and said this was providence or something like that. I stepped back and said something sulky, “Well I had a long walk home.” While I did not really take it to much account, I knew the Lewis’s were Christians and wondered if God was looking after His people. While I was extremely ill, I continued to have odd experiences that were almost miraculous. I also had opportunities to learn about the Bible. It came from different people not connected with each other. I wondered if all this was being orchestrated by God. I was working at Jet Propulsion Laboratory now for the summer as a technical aid in their microbiology department and there met a young typist who was a Christian and I dated her for a time. She invited me to a play at her church. Afterwards we stopped at a cafe for a little something to eat. While she planned that a friend would meet us there and he would share the Four Spiritual Laws with me, the only thing he said that connected with me, was that he quoted a verse, “Behokd, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and open the door I will come in and dine with him and he with Me ” In the back of my mind I thought “Have I been hearing Jesus’s voice? That night when I was in my room I prayed “Dear God I don’t know if you exist, but if you do and Jesus is the way to You, I will follow Him and worship Him for the rest of my life. ” I went to bed. The next day now attending Cal Poly Pomona I sat on the ground and leaned against an Eucalyptus tree and read A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold . He mentioned the boik of Isaiah in the Bible I read the first fifteen chapters or so of Isaiah in a Bible I recently received and was quite impressed. Having studied ecology, Isaiah 5:11 described houses built one against each other until there was no room in the land. The farmland would only produce very little an acre of vineyard would produce only six gallons of wine. That reminded me about learning that land has a carrying capacity and that if it is not cared for it will stop producing. Also Isaiah 11:12 described that the Jews would be dispersed across the world but in the last days they would return to their homeland. I knew that Israel was reborn on May 14th 1948 and that Jews were returning to their homeland from the four corners of the earth after 1900 years. That impressed me too. There is also a verse that a child would be born to a virgin and she would name him Emanuel. I knew that Jesus was supposed to be born of a virgin and I wondered if this prophecy was about Jesus. Anyway everything came together and I believed. Furthermore the Lord came into my life and 48 years later I am still following my Lord. If you would like to see some actual evidence for the God of the Bible I published Bible Prophecy and Today:: An Urgent Wake-Up Call! I haven’t published it yet but I have formatted on my computer a book Science and the Bible: Evidence for the God of the Bible. I show how Bible prophecies are being fulfilled right before our eyes in our day, and how science and rhe Bible support each other when they are both interpreted correctly. I will mail them to anyone for free. I just need a mailing address. My email address is tbates55@aol.com.

  3. Graham says

    Maybe “it’s not a historian’s job” could be rephrased as “we can’t tell you what your prior should be, but we can argue over history to tell you how much you should update it.”

    It seems reasonable to say historians (or perhaps no one, though I suspect philosophers might dispute that) lack the proper expertise to tell you the right prior

  4. First Cause says

    Philip,

    I am somewhat disappointed to hear that you are writing a book about (“The Purpose of Existence: Between God and Atheism”). It would be a noble attempt to examine the purpose of existence in the proper context but, “Between God and Atheism” is not that context.

    For itt can be definitively demonstrated utilizing the rules of logical consistency wherein one arrives at a truth of necessity which clearly demonstrates that God does not exist. Once this is done, there is no longer a place for agnosticism in this regard.

  5. Pingback: Can You Prove a Miracle? - Nobodys word

  6. jatclat says

    Fascinating blog piece, but I’m glad I didn’t listen to the 6 hours.
    The people who claimed to have seen Jesus risen from the dead didn’t have our modern concept of miracles as things that break the laws of nature, because the idea of God-independent laws of nature was yet to be invented. A miracle was something that made you wonder. As Aquinas said, an eclipse is a miracle to a farmer but not to an astronomer.
    So we ought to ask what those resurrection-seeing first century Jews meant by their experiences. This is what Peter Gant does in his book ‘Seeing Light’. He goes through all the concepts available to 1st century Jews: a vision that God has vindicated the dead person (eg Mark 16); holy people who went straight to heaven, like Enoch & Elijah, instead of dying & going to Hades; pre-existing heavenly beings who came to earth, as described in John; an imminent new age when people stop dying, as in 1 Corinthians 15.
    The problem is: none of this satisfies post-Enlightenment Christians who want to defeat secular science by pointing to a divine intervention into a world being run by impersonal laws of nature. But if the world is being run by God anyway, things look different.

    • very interesting, thanks! This could change how we assess the prior probability of resurrection, but obviously won’t remove the question entirely (not that you were suggesting it would).

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