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How Bayes’ Theorem Proves the Resurrection (Gullotta on Carrier once more)

Yet I cannot help but compare Carrier’s approach to the work of Richard Swinburne, who likewise uses Bayes’ theorem to demonstrate the high probability of Jesus’ resurrection, and wonder if it is not fatally telling that Bayes’ theorem can be used to both prove the reality of Jesus’ physical resurrection and prove that he had no existence as a historical person.49

49 Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

The above quotation is from page 16 of Daniel Gullotta’s 37 page review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus [OHJ].

To make such a comparison one would expect the author to be familiar with how the Bayes’ rule is used by both Carrier and Swinburne. Unfortunately Gullotta nowhere indicates that he consulted the prequel to OHJ, Proving History, in which Carrier explained Bayes on a “for dummies” level and which was referenced repeatedly in OHJ. Gullotta moreover indicated that he found all of the Bayesian references in OHJ way over his head — even though the numbers used were nothing more than statements of probability of evidence leaning one way or the other, such as when we say there is a 50-50 chance of rain or we are 90% sure we know who’s been pinching our coffee at work. Robert M. Price has expressed similar mathemaphobia so Gullotta is not alone.

Anyway, we have a right to expect that the reviewer is familiar with the way Bayes is used in at least one of the works he is comparing, and since he skipped the Bayesian discussion in OHJ he is presumably aware of how Swinburne used Bayes to effectively prove the resurrection of Jesus.

Bayes’ theorem is about bringing to bear all background knowledge and evidence for a particular hypothesis, assessing it against alternative hypotheses, and updating one’s assessments in the light of new information as it comes along.

If that sounds no different from the common sense way we ought to approach any problem, that’s because it is no different from common sense methods. That’s why Bayes “cracked the enigma code, hunted down Russian submarines and emerged triumphant [even in historical studies!] from two centuries of controversy“.

Anyway, scholars who ought to know better have indicated that they can safely dismiss Bayes because Richard Swinburne used it to prove the resurrection of Jesus. Never mind that that’s like saying we should never use syllogisms in argument because some joker used one to prove everything with two legs was a man.

Richard Swinburne

So let’s see exactly how Swinburne used a tool that some of the smartest people in the world use for all sorts of good things in order to prove Jesus is alive today and about to come and judge us all.

Bayes works with facts. Hard data. Real evidence. Stuff.

For Swinburne, anything in the Bible is a definite fact that requires us to believe it if there is nothing else in the Bible to contradict it. That’s the “hard data” that Swinburne feeds into his Bayesian equation!

Notice some of Swinburne’s gems found in The Resurrection of God Incarnate (with my own bolding as usual):

Most of St Paul’s epistles are totally reliable historical sources. The synoptic gospels are basically historical works, though they do sometimes seek to make theological points (especially in the Infancy narratives) by adding details to the historical account. St John’s Gospel is also basically reliable, at any rate on the later events of the story of Jesus . . . . (p 69)

I argued earlier that, in the absence of counter-evidence, apparent testimony should be taken as real testimony and so apparent historical claims as real historical claims. (p. 70)

It seems fairly clear that the main body of the Acts of the Apostles is intended to be taken as literal history. It reads like any other contemporary work of history, and the later parts (which contain no reports of anything miraculous) are so detailed and matter-of-fact as to have a diary-like quality to them. (p. 71)

Hence there is no justification for thinking that Mark is trying to do anything else than record history when he writes about these events . . . (p. 73)

I conclude that the three synoptic Gospels purport to be history (history of cosmic significance, but I repeat, history all the same). (p. 74)

Just as apparent testimony must be read as real testimony, so real testimony must be believed, in the absence of counter-evidence.  (p. 76) read more »