- There’s really no reason to think that miracle-observers should be any more reliable than normal human beings. I don’t deny that miracles have occurred, just that the available evidence fails to justify a belief that they have occurred. Be that as it may, if Jesus’s resurrection is the ‘disease1’ and the witness report is the ‘test’, we can now do the algebra to decide whether to believe in the resurrection. The base rate for the resurrection is (let’s say) one in 1 billion. The witnesses go wrong only one time in 100,000. One billion divided by 100,000 is 10,000. So, even granting the existence of extraordinary witnesses, the chance that they were right about the resurrection is only one in 10,000; hardly the basis for a justiﬁed belief.
- As with the diagnostic test, the question to ask is whether there is a better explanation for the existence of these witness statements than the actual resurrection, which, as we’ve already said, is vastly improbable. What might account for such reports? Who knows, but I imagine any of the following is more likely than the supposition that Jesus actually rose from the dead:
How likely are any of these alternative accounts of why the witnesses, if present at all, said what they did? No idea, to be honest, but I’m quite sure that any of them are more probable than a dead person returning to life.
- Perhaps no witnesses were present and the story of the resurrection simply grew, as fantastic stories often do, from embellished retellings of Jesus’s life; or
- The witnesses reported a hallucination of Jesus that others then took to be a true report of Jesus in corporeal form; or maybe
- The witnesses were mendacious and eager to start a cult that might challenge Roman authority.
- No one is justiﬁed in believing in Jesus’s resurrection. The numbers simply don’t justify the conclusion. But the resurrection is just one miracle. If we suppose that all miracles are similarly rare, then, by parity of reasoning, belief in any one of them is similarly unjustiﬁed. As noted earlier, my conclusion doesn’t deny that miracles have occurred or might occur, just that the available evidence fails to justify a belief that they have occurred. So, if you wish to continue to believe in miracles, you must do so knowing that the evidence is not on your side.
- Sub-title: "What are the odds that Jesus rose or Moses parted the waves? Even with the best witnesses, vanishingly small."
- For the full text, see Aeon: Shapiro - A drop in the sea
- Earlier, the author has drawn an analogy between evaluating the probability of one’s having a rare but dread disease. Given that any test produces false positives, you cannot evaluate the probability without knowing two things:-
- The rate of false positives, and
- The frequency of the disease in the general population.
- This has been covered in other papers in Aeon, eg. "Colquhoun (David) - The problem with p-values".
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