Sunday 13 December 2009

Theology FAIL: Richard Swinburne proves the resurrection

A conversation yesterday reminded me of Richard Swinburne's 2003 book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate. Using Bayesian probability and lashings of highfalutin mathematical jargon, Swinburne argues that "it [is] very probable indeed that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead" (p. 214). His mathematical apologetics for the resurrection boils down to the following argument:

  1. The probably of God's existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn't exist).
  2. The probability that God became incarnate is also one in two (since it either happened or it didn't).
  3. The evidence for God's existence is an argument for the resurrection.
  4. The chance of Christ's resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
  5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.
It's almost impossible to parody this argument (since in order to parody it, you would have to imagine something sillier – a daunting task!). But let me try:

The probably that the moon is made of cheese is one in two (since it is either made of cheese or it isn't); the probability that this cheese is camembert is also one in two (since it's either camembert or it isn't); and so on...


Jason Goroncy said...

Nice one Ben. You might even be able to use this kind of logic to sponsor the claim that Tom Waits is actually a singer after all. With God, nothing is impossible.

Shane said...


All your post here shows is how little you understand Swinburne's arguments. I haven't read the book, but I would put a thousands dollars down that the argument is not what you've 'reconstructed' here.

It would be better for you simply not to comment on things you don't understand.

Anonymous said...

"All your post here shows is how little you understand Swinburne's arguments. I haven't read the book, but I would put a thousands dollars down that the argument is not what you've 'reconstructed' here."

+1... Ben, why do you go so far out of your way to be charitable to some theologies that easily could be parodied (e.g. Rastafari theology), and refuse a similar attitude of charity toward analytics like Swinburne?

Here's a review from someone who actually read the book: (=


Mack Ramer said...

When I read this 'proof', my eyes rolled so hard that they actually went all the way around.

David W. Congdon said...

You can actually read some of the pages on Amazon's preview screen, and from the looks of it, the argument is quite a bit more ridiculous than Ben's reconstruction.

At the end of the day, Shane, the application of symbolic logic to divine events like the incarnation and the resurrection is always and everywhere absurd, regardless of how well it is employed. It reduces the Christian gospel to a banality and turns faith into a rational proof.

The litmus test for things like this must be the following: does this support or undermine the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian faith? Put differently, is the Holy Spirit necessary to get Christian belief off the ground according to this person's position? (See 1 Cor. 2:10-16.) Swinburne fails the test.

Shane said...

Listening to David, or Ben or Adam Kotsko talk about analytic philosophy is like listening to a blind man at an art museum spouting his opinions about the paintings.

Anonymous said...

"At the end of the day, Shane, the application of symbolic logic to divine events like the incarnation and the resurrection is always and everywhere absurd, regardless of how well it is employed. It reduces the Christian gospel to a banality and turns faith into a rational proof."

Even if this is the case, there is no excuse for trivializing an argument if one doesn't understand it. Christians are rightly irritated/amused when atheists with no understanding of the Christian faith (Dawkins et. all) ridicule Christian thought. You and Ben both have excellent blogs, but as far as I know neither of you have any knowledge of analytic philosophy or advanced mathematics. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to say "I admit I don't know anything about math or philosophy, and therefore can't comment on the formal validity of Swinburne's argument, but Christians in principle shouldn't be in the business of proving articles of the faith like the resurrection."


Ben Myers said...

Shane, the argument I summarised here is only one step in Swinburne's larger (and, as David points out) even sillier argument. The mathematical jargon might look daunting and impressive (and might predispose some readers to take it seriously), but the argument itself is actually very easy to follow.

Of course, I haven't bothered including the specific Bayesian calculations, since these are strictly irrelevant: the whole problem with Swinburne's procedure is that he doesn't give any sane grounds for the values that he assigns.

The sympathetic review that AAA links to above makes exactly the same point — Swinburne's argument is a FAIL, since he "is not successful in defending the values he assigns to various probability statements he used in Bayes theorem".

Shane said...

So, here's a list of things that I know must be wrong with Ben's understanding of Swinburne, even without reading the original text.

First, what Swinburne's offering is a bayesian argument for the probability of the resurrection. A "proof" guarantees the truth of its conclusion, whereas a bayesian argument merely demonstrates that one has a rationally-acceptable belief in the conclusion because it is more probable than not.

Second, Ben's six claims don't actually amount to an argument, i.e. the conclusion isn't derived from the premises. Which seems more likely to you: that one of the leading philosophers of religion in the world doesn't know how to make a valid logical argument, or that Ben Myers is just in over his head? I know which way I'd break on that question.

Third, the problem of prior probabilities is a famous, notorious, difficulty in Bayesian reasoning, (in which Swinburne is an expert). So, the notion that Swinburne would say that the probability that God exists is .5 because "either he exists or not" is ridiculous. It is a lot easier to imagine that Ben just doesn't understand what he is reading than that Swinburne would shoot himself in the foot by not dealing with this issue. Further evidence: phrases like "hafalutin' mathematics" do not inspire confidence in Ben's ability to comprehend what is happening in Swinburne. So at the very least, I'm automatically suspicious of (1) and (2) in Ben's version.

Fourth, (1) just can't be what Swinburne says, because Swinburne has argued elsewhere that it is significantly more probable that God exists than not, i.e. P(god) >.5. I could imagine Swinburne wanting to start from a very weak premise like: (1*) "Although I've already proven that P(god) is >.5, let's just assume that it is *at least* .5" (1*) is a considerably different claim and it is one which Swinburne can clearly make. He's written the book already arguing for a stronger claim, so he's automatically entitled to a much weaker one.

I'm sure if we actually looked at Swinburne's text we would find a lot more errors, infelicities and misunderstandings.

If anybody's work here deserves the epithet: "theology fail" it's ben's, not Swinburne's.

Shane said...

"the whole problem with Swinburne's procedure is that he doesn't give any sane grounds for the values that he assigns."

This is the problem of assigning prior probabilities, and he *does* attend to it. The ND review quoted above gives some of those arguments, without being persuaded by them--which is about where I find myself.

But being unpersuaded by an argument is a very different claim than saying there was no argument in the first place. You're presentation of Swinburne's view isn't close enough to his actual argument to even count as a caricature.

Abob said...

I'll just add my voice to the number of disgruntled readers. As a grad. student in philosophy working in the analytic tradition, but who also has interest in theology and more continental stuff, this post really disappointed me. Not many people are likely to be convinced by Swinburne's argument, true, but it's not just ridiculous, and I cannot help but feel that your ridiculous 'parody' reflects a serious lack of charity.

David may have a broadly relevant worry, but I just don't think it applies to this case. I don't think Swinburne is out to convert people with his book, but to apply one way of thinking about things that he knows a lot about to an issue that he cares a lot about. There are many motivations he could have for this, none of which seems to me blameworthy - encouraging other Christians who have doubts but may be more inclined to accept his values for the prior probabilities, as an experiment in applying Bayesian reasoning to Christian distinctives, or, hell, strictly because he gets joy out of it and thinks there's something beautiful about trying to make sustained arguments.

I also don't see what the Holy Spirit has to do with anything - even if he thought he HAD proved the resurrection, that wouldn't be to deny the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that for some people, even SEEING a person raised from the dead would not be enough to make them believe - surely that would be more likely to make an impact than any probabilistic argument. But the Holy Spirit can (and often did) work through visions and miracles, and can (and often does) work through philosophical argument.

It's a little ironic that Swinburne, the prototypical analytic philosopher, belongs to a tradition (Orthodoxy) that is usually as against arguments for God's existence as you seem to be. But they're also usually much more charitable, especially to other Christians.

Ben Myers said...


* P(H): The probability that I have understood Swinburne is 1/2
* P(D|H): Given that I have understood him, there is an 7/10 probability that his argument is a FAIL
* P(D|H'): Given these prior probabilities, there is a 1/4 probability that your comments are correct

So, where P(H|D) = [P(D|H)P(H)]/[P(D|H)P(H)+P(D|H')(1-P(H))], there is therefore a 74% probability that I have correctly interpreted Swinburne's FAIL.

I rest my case.

Shane said...

This would have been funnier if you'd used Bayes's theorem correctly.

Tyler Wittman said...

@David Congdon

"does this support or undermine the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian faith?"

I think it goes back even further, does one believe that the Spirit is able to use the imperfect speculations and reasoning of men to produce faith? Faith rarely happens in a vacuum, and yet I would not hesitate to emphasize fully with you that it's ALL the Spirit.

Cannot "the application of symbolic logic to divine events" sometimes be a way of speaking past demons (if they're a skeptic who really digs symbolic logic and doesn't get out very much)? I'm not sure if there's nothing wrong with the application in and of itself as a proof, only when it tries to replace the role of the Spirit.

Nevertheless, I've never argued anyone into faith.

Zizekslatesttomeonthechristianityoflooroll said...

"At the end of the day, Shane, the application of symbolic logic to divine events like the incarnation and the resurrection is always and everywhere absurd"

At the end of the day, Swinburne is applying Bayes' Theorem to claimed historical events like the incarnation and the resurrection, so your criticism is absurd.

"The litmus test for things like this must be the following: does this support or undermine the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian faith? ... Swinburne fails the test.'

No, the litmus test for analytic philosophical reasoning is: does the conclusion logically follow from the premises? Congdon fails the understanding test.

I agree with what others have written: it's very disappointing that Ben, usually so sure-footed, gives acres of space and credibility to waffle like Rastafarian theology and continental philosophy wankers with permanent verbal diarrhoea like Zizek, but goes out of his way to ignorantly and inaccurately caricature Swinburne.

Robert said...

Ben, what you point to is certainly an epic fail, which of course merely points to the larger reductionistic fail of not realizing that different questions require different kinds of answers (ie., different disciplines require different kinds of methods). It's interesting to compare the huge gap between the entire conception of the nature and task of theology implied by this "proof" and, for example, Coakley's "back-door" access to systematic theology by way of the practice of prayer...

Abob said...

I'm wary to post again, as I generally think comment-debates are worthless, but I really am puzzled by this issue and really want to know what's going on. Specifically to Robert - I think it's disingenuous to read an 'entire conception of the nature and task of theology' into Swinburne's work (which again, he would not, I think, call a proof). He is an Orthodox Christian, and they know better than anyone that true theology can only be done in a spirit of prayer. But isn't it just as blamefully reductionistic to say that this sort of thing isn't 'real' theology? Swinburne is without a doubt a gifted philosopher, and even if you get nothing from his work, and even if you think it is not, in the grand scheme of things, the most important sort of theological work, it IS seen as interesting and intellectually challenging and powerful to other people. If he would not claim that his work is all there is to theology, then why should we say his work is not (good) theology at all?

I really feel that all the animosity between "continental" and "analytic" (and other debates, especially in art) arise simply because people can't understand that different people have different intellectual (I would even say spiritual) dispositions and that there may be many methods or routes to Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. "We, though many, form one single body."

Ben Myers said...

FWIW, I don't see Swinburne as representative of an analytic theological style. I think there's some serious and interesting theology being done via analytic methods (in fact, I'm planning to post a review later this week of both Analytic Theology and God Incarnate). I just happen to feel that Swinburne's Bayesian stuff is neither serious nor interesting — not because it's "analytic", but because it strikes me as bad methodology and bad theology.

David W. Congdon said...

@Tyler Wittman:

"does one believe that the Spirit is able to use the imperfect speculations and reasoning of men to produce faith?"

In short, no. The Spirit works in and through the proclaimed Word of God. It is Word and Spirit in unity that produce faith, and not one or the other on its own. This is a basic point throughout the NT.


The incarnation and the resurrection are not, strictly speaking, "historical events." They are not events in the same way Caesar crossing the Rubicon or the U.S. invasion of Normandy are historical events. The incarnation and the resurrection are divine events that cannot be objectified like any other object within nature or history. We cannot speak about them in the aorist tense; they are always in the perfect and present (not to mention future) tenses as realities that confront us here and now by Word and Spirit. To speak of such things in terms of probability is to entirely misunderstand the nature of these realities. So the misunderstanding is entirely on the part of Swinburne, not me.

Kampen said...

Ben, your comment "I just happen to feel that Swinburne's Bayesian stuff is neither serious nor interesting — not because it's "analytic", but because it strikes me as bad methodology and bad theology," I think is important here.

My visceral reactions to the post were that your identification of this book as a "theology fail" was an act of truth telling. What I mean by that is that one does not prove resurrection. The relationship between cross and resurrection is one of blessing, of gift, not cause and effect. This is why I agree that the problem in Swinburne's writing is bad theology. It's more akin to methodological constantinianism than anything else.

Robert said...

@abob: I agree--no interest in a comment debate. But you agree that the book is a book of theology, and consequently what it tries to do implies a certain notion of the task of theology. Perhaps the words "an entire..." went overboard. I wasn't so much disturbed by the analytic style of theology, as by the specific absurdity of seeking some method to demonstrate the probability of the resurrection. Congdon gets right to the heart of it by pointing out the difference between things like the resurrection and "historical events." The point of my comment was that one's subject matter should lead to one's methodology---and Bayesian probability is not the method dictated by this subject matter. This is my theological perspective, anyhow, and I don't think stating it makes me a reductionist quite to the degree that making the resurrection the subject of a probability argument seems to make Swinburne...

Anonymous said...

lol @ theologians trying to do historiography... seriously though, you're going to have to do better than apparently dividing history into "human" and "divine" categories. What about the divine character of the resurrection precludes it from being the object of historical investigation, or from probability? Just saying "it's a divine event that confronts us" is not going to cut it. The perfect active is used in relation to "regular" historical events as well.


David W. Congdon said...


It has nothing to do with historiography. It is a question of your doctrine of God. Mine is rooted in a radically dialectical relation between Creator and creature, one that prevents speaking about God (or the divine) as an object among other objects in the world. God either gives Godself to be known by human beings or does not; if God does, then we are made capable of proper God-talk by virtue of the Spirit in accordance with the Word of God (Christ, Scripture, and preaching). There is no "divine" and "human" history, as if these were species of some larger genus; there is human history, and then there are the divine events in which God interrupts this history. To use the German distinction (along the lines of Martin Kähler), there is Historie and then there is Geschichte.

By the way, to all the analytic philosophers out there who think us theologians shouldn't talk about things of which we do not know, let me turn it around: we'll stop talking about analytic philosophy once analytic philosophers stop talking about the gospel and the articles of faith.

Kampen said...

We should never stop talking. For theologians to think that we have the Gospel etc. figured out is to deceive ourselves. Likewise, for philosophers to think they have things they can offer which they fully grasp, is equally deceptive. We need each other. Humans can't practice charity without an existence of the other (only God does that, i.e. creation ex nihilo. The work of God doesn't take place within a vacuum called the church. Philosphers, please do not stop talking about the Gospel. Theologians, keep getting your feet dirty in philosophical enquiry.

Anonymous said...

@ David,

First off, thank you for your response. I'm still puzzled as to why you think you've shown that historiography has nothing to do with the discussion. I agree with your doctrine of God. Nevertheless, aren't divine "interruptions" into human history divine interruptions into HUMAN history, and therefore relateable, if only tangentially, to the discipline of history, and therefore to historiography? E.g. if Christ has been raised, is it not in principle possible that there could be historical marks of his resurrection? If a "historian" (who has been given faith by the Holy Spirit through the Word) could look at the physical signs/marks 10 minutes after the resurrection and relate them to his God-given faith (e.g. he thinks something along the lines of "I believe in the resurrected Christ because of the Holy Spirit. Look, that appears to be Jesus' footprint. Maybe he just walked by here."), why is it impossible for later "historians" to do similar work?


Abob said...

Robert and David,
Thanks for your responses. Although I am unabashedly from the tradition of analytic philosophy, I hope you see from my comments that I am genuinely interested in other developments of the philosophical tradition and am not here just to flame or put others down - I really want to understand. It's important to see, though, that the claims you all make about history and methodological issues are in principle philosophical claims and subject to normal types of philosophical inquiry. You say that the resurrection is not just an historical event among others, but what exactly does that mean? It was definitely something that happened, and it was definitely something that happened in space and time. Of course, there are aspects of it that go beyond our ability to comprehend, and it has a 'meaning' that goes beyond mere belief in an isolated historical occurrence. I don't think Swinburne, or any Christian, would deny this. But that historical bit is important - why not address ourselves to that bit and see what can be said about it? (Again, I'm not saying I actually buy Swinburne's argument, but there seems to me nothing damnable about the attempt).

Also, I can't help but feel too much of a dualism here in several of the responses (of course, dualism and reductionism are both errors to be avoided). Re: the above discussion about the Spirit and the Word of God working together to produce faith - again, I'm inclined to think this is right - but we must not be overly reductionistic about what counts as God's Word. For some person in some situation, it's conceivable that a clever philosophical argument could be for that person the very Words of God. Also, I'm a little wary of the talk of divine vs. human events/history. Human history is God's history - it is the history of God working in and through (this part of) the created world to bring redemption to the world. Again, of course there are aspects of it that we don't and could not with our limited capacities have access to, but for those parts that we do have access to, our access is genuine.

As I said in my last post, I realize this may not be the best forum for this sort of discussion, but it is one I care a lot about and this is about the only forum I have.

Andrew Loke said...

'Ben Myers said...
Shane:* P(H): The probability that I have understood Swinburne is 1/2'

No, it is less than 1/2. Myers probably misunderstood Swinburne, as his analogy of 'moon made of cheese' is false. Although it is true that moon is either made of cheese or it isn't, this does not imply that the probability that the moon is made of cheese is one in two. Rather, the probability that moon is made of cheese is based on observational evidence (e.g. chemical analysis of the materials from the moon), and based on what we have so far it is improbable that the moon is made of cheese.

On the other hand, (Swinburne would argue that) we have good evidence for the existence of God, far more than 1/2, but for the sake of the argument he would reduce it to 1/2 so as to avoid the charge that he exaggerated the strength of the evidence. As he wrote on The Resurrection of God incarnate p.201 'I began this book with the claim that generally available public evidence (not directly concerned with the Christian tradition) favours the hypothesis that there is a God of the traditional kind—omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, and perfectly good. I have not argued for this claim here, although I have done so elsewhere. I do not wish to exaggerate the strength of the evidence, and so I have claimed merely that the evidence makes it as probable as not that there is a God.'

Concerning the role of the Holy Spirit in producing faith, the Scriptures never say that it is exclusive of the use of evidentialist arguments. On the other hand, if the necessity of the Spirit's work implies that the use of evidentialist arguments is bad theology, one wonders why the New testament portrays that Jesus bothered to show himself alive to the disciples after his crucifixion instead of simply sending the Spirit to produce faith in them. And one wonders why Paul bothered to cite the list of eyewitnesses in 1 Cor 15:3-11, noting that most of the 500 brethren remain until now (v.6). It is best to say that the role of the Spirit is complementary rather than exclusive of evidentialist arguments.

Andrew Loke said...

To be more exact, Ben's paraphrasing of Swinburne's argument as '1.The probably of God's existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn't exist)' is a misrepresentation. This is because the reason why Swinburne says that the probability of God's existence is one in two is NOT because 'God either exists or doesn't exist', as Ben thought it to be, but rather the reason is because Swinburne does not wish to be accused of exaggerating the strength of the evidence at this stage of his argument, as explained in my previous post.

JohnCW said...

While I might concede the probability of god existing is 1/2, there are other points to consider. What is the probability that there is only one god? What is the probability that it is the Christian god?

probability [in it's simplest form] is the number of positive outcomes divided by the number of possible outcomes. Dividing by 0 or any operation with infinity is undefined, but a really really large number dividing an number which is infinitesimal by comparison is very close to zero.

however many possible gods exist, n. and since each God can either exist of not we have the probability of one one specific god existing as the sole god is

1 / 2^n

lets say there are 20 possible gods, of course there are much more.

then the probabiltiy that the christian god exists and is the only god is already worse than one in a million.

Justin S. said...

On the other hand, Barthy Barth Barth Barth, Barthy Barth Barth.

myleswerntz said...

Swinburne's kind of stuff is the very stuff which biases me against analytics. Looking forward to seeing whether Analytic Theology is any better.

JohnCW said...

*sorry for all the typos - I was running late for work

now let's consider the probability of god existing is much better say 90% or 9/10. This makes matters worse.

the probability of the christian god existing is 9/10 and the probability of all other gods not existing is 1/10

so the probability that the christian god is the only god would be

where n is the number of possible gods minus one

for 20 possible nonchristian gods - of course there are many more

the probability is worse than
1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000
that the Christian God exists.

Shane said...

Hi JohnCW,

There are independent arguments that show there is at most one God. I don't know if Swinburne endorses this specific argument, but here's one:

Informally: God is the greatest conceivable being, possessing all perfections. Further, two things, if they are different, must be different in some respect (by the Identity of Indiscernables). Even two electrons (which share all of their intrinsic properties) are distinct from one another because they occupy different locations, for instance. So, suppose there are two Gods. Then one must different than the other in some respect, call it Z. Let's say g1 has z and g2 lacks it. Well, Z is either a perfection or an imperfection. If Z is a perfection, then g2 must also possess it, since g2 is a god and all gods possess all perfections. On the other hand, if Z is an imperfection, then g1 could not really be a god, because a god has no imperfections. In order for g1 and g2 to both be gods, they would have to be absolutely identical, which is to say, there would not really be two distinct gods at all. Hence, there is at most one God.

roger flyer said...

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Halden said...

Shane, who hurt you?

kim fabricius said...

The Reverend Thomas Bayes,
who countered Berkeley, defended Newton
(to the sound of Blake apukin'),
reincarnate for our days
(God moves in mysterious ways),
after logical inspection of the chance of resurrection of the Son,
shouts the odds: "A grand to one!"
("Worth a wager?" wonders Blaise.)

JohnCW said...

Hey Shane, thanks for the reply.

Unfortunately, that doesn't solve the problem of which god is it?

IF we could prove that there must be one and only one god. We are in a better place, but the probability of it being the christian god is still

1/n - n=# of other gods.

I have two problems and one comment about this argument.

1. it predefines god as perfect[a monotheistic assumption] with a monotheistic conclusion in mind.
2. it assumes that g2 does not have some other quality which makes it different from g1 but equally perfect.

could you imagine the perfect mother and perfect father being very different, but each are perfect parents?

This actually sounds like an argument against the orthodox, trinitarian god

JohnCW said...

Dawkins smashes Pascal's wager in such a convincing way, I was embarrassed to have never thought about it this way. I believe he takes the argument from Bertrand Russel.

What if god is the sort of chap who rewards critical thinking or honesty. Of course, such a god would punished blind faith or feigned belief with the fires of hell.

Adam Kotsko said...

I don't remember talking about analytic philosophy here. I'm now so morbidly fascinated with this book that I might try to track down a review copy.

J said...

1.The probably of God's existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn't exist).

The first premise is a FAIL. Swinburne moves from the law of the excluded middle (a monotheistic Christian G*d exists, or a m.C. G*d doesn't exist) to assuming that implies equivalent "odds"--which is not at all sound; the LOTEM gives the appearance of equivalency, but that is not the case in fact. It's true that either Chupacabras exist, or they don't exist: but that does not at all imply it's a 50/50 chance chupies do exist.

Bayes theorem used correctly works from confirmed evidence/data, not just anedotal reports (ie of miracles, religious experience, mystics, etc); so reports/ancient texts cannot really be counted as reliable evidence. However sinister Hume was, he was aware of this issue. Hume--a frequentist (tho' he might have known of Bayes) really doesn't grant anecdotal, hearsay reports as admissable evidence whatsoever (including...the New Testament itself).

At the very least there is a long argument which would show that reports or miracles, or mystic experience, and religious texts (ie the New Testament, weighed against other religions) all count as evidence or data of some type, and really then weigh the religious evidence, such as it is, against ordinary non-miraculous reality (Hume's uniformity of experience"). When done in that way, Bayesian induction actually suggests the implausibility of religious experience (at least if construed as supernatural and miraculous)--and indeed that's how Rev. Bayes used it....that needn't imply...a-theism, but does show the inapplicability of bayesian methods to religious issues....

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Derek said...

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roger flyer said...

Wait a minute fellows... are you suggesting...Klatu energon did NOT receive these tablets on the mount?

philq said...

Hey Shane,

Your argument for the existence of God is interesting. But it reminds me of Arthur C. McGill's summary of the Arian/Athanasius debate in his book on Suffering. He says that for Arius, for God to be perfect he must be self-sufficient. So if God the Father begets the Son and both are consubstantial, then God is not self-sufficient.

Now that's a great argument, and it convinces me just as well as your argument convinces me. But then I read about Athanasius' response- that this self-sufficient God must be a false God, since the New Testament shows that God's nature is self-giving, rather than self dependent. The logical idea of God is false, not on the basis of logic, but on the basis of Jesus Christ. Our logical ideas about what God's 'perfection' consists of are baseless.

Of course I do believe there is only one God. But I believe this not because it makes logical sense, but becasue God has told us there are no other Gods but him.

Though in the end perhaps Abob is right about the spiritual nature of these arguments. To me, analytic philosophy is deeply repugnant, and I feel absolute distance from any god discussed in that way. And I say this having gone to graduate school in math and taken plenty of courses on mathematical logic :)

roger flyer said...

Cool. Check Halden's culinary and cocktail blog for some right brain exercises. (sorry Halden, but I think you need some traffic over there for all these left brain-iacs...)

Tyler Wittman said...

@ Congdon,

Formally, I agree with you. But, being charitable, if such reasoning is in the midst of our proclamation of the gospel, Paul seems fine with it (Acts 17). Even Barth borrowed from Socrates and his kin.

It's alright to plunder the Egyptians.

Halden said...

Philq, you have gained my confidence and respect for mentioning and understanding McGill. Rock on my brother.

roger flyer said...

Philq and Halden--a Guinness together then--fight over the second drink.

Joshua Blanchard said...

Negative reactions to Swinburne, like this one, are quite overblown. A few points:

(1) As several people have pointed out, Swinburne gives God a .5 probability as a conservative concession, referencing his highly regarded work on the existence of God.

(2) The fuss here and elsewhere about misapplication of Bayesian calculus is unwarranted. For one thing, people who actually have read Swinburne's book know that he only bothers with actual calculations and exact assignments in the appendix to the book. Otherwise:

(3) Swinburne's approach is really quite banal. He's merely responding to the fact that arguments in favor of the resurrection have only looked at historical evidence, and haven't considered the philosophical or theological evidence. This evidence is the background evidence of what God would be likely to do, given a world like ours, and so on. If we find rough confirmation of exactly what we expect, and furthermore find various confirmations localized in one personage or event (i.e. the resurrection of Jesus), then this can be seen as good evidence both for the event.

(4) As others have pointed out, Swinburne is not conducting a "proof." As I think the Notre Dame review points out (haven't looked at it for along time), Swinburne might at least succeed in showing that it could be reasonable for someone to think the resurrection (of God incarnate) likely.

This gets at a hallmark of Swinburne's work, namely that he employs mostly eminently plausible principles and philosophical moves. Contrast this with someone like Alvin Plantinga, who is always invoking things like transworld depravity, the sensus divinitatis, and so on.

Lastly I'll register my shared disappointment that such a petty and ignorant post was written on a well-read and usually noteworthy blog. As Peter Parker had to learn, with great power comes great responsibility.

Anonymous said...

to put another prominent name or two into the discussion
tom wrights book about the resurrection also
prposes to demonstrate that the resurrection is the most probable of different explanations for the accounts in the gospels and the pauline corpus
william lane craig, to dare mention another name
not in the same league, does the same.
as does, probably but very sadly not available in englis,hans kessler,by the way dealing with the arguments of bultmann,marxsen et al.
are, in your opinion, ben,david,..all these books and insights irrelevant
kurt usar,md graz,austria

kim fabricius said...

I just love the way the po-faced analytical philosophers have responded to the post as if it were a refutation when Ben explicitly states that it's a "parody". Ben will correct me if I'm wrong, but my take here is that, with D. Z. Phillips (after Wittgenstein), Ben regards Swinburne's philosophical project as a comical spectacle because of its obliviousness to the contexts and practices in which the propositions of faith come to expression and find their sense. Mind, turn to Swinburne's theodicy and the absurd becomes the obscene.

Shane said...



Parody is a kind of refutation--it shows that from the opponent's premises unwanted conclusions follow. Cf. Voltaire's parody of Leibnizian optimism in the person of Dr. Pangloss. But Ben doesn't understand even what Swinburne's premises *are*, and so it isn't surprising that his attempt to parody them fail.

Ben might well "regards Swinburne's philosophical project as a comical spectacle because of its obliviousness to the contexts and practices in which the propositions of faith come to expression," but if he does think so, shouldn't he say something to justify that claim. Second shouldn't he show us just where Swinburne's gone wrong. A wave of the magic wand in the direction of Wittgenstein does not absolve everything.

Halden said...

You have been hurt. You have been hurt by somebody, that much is clear. Who hurt you?

kim fabricius said...

Here's a joke for you, Shane.

Richard Swinburne says to John Mackie: "I believe that it is highly probable that 'On the third day he rose again, in accordance with the the Scriptures'."

John Mackie says to Richard Swinburne: "I believe that it is highly improbable that 'On the third day he rose again, in acordance with the Scriptures'."

Get it?

Christopher said...

I still want a response to AAA's last post about human history.

patrick todd said...

Hi Ben (and Kim),

First, let me address Kim's claim that Ben's post is "just a parody." But that's not what Ben says. Ben gives a parody of Swinburne's argument with the moon/cheese example, but the argument Ben initially gives on behalf of Swinburne doesn't purport to be a parody -- in fact, Ben says Swinburne's argument can be 'boiled down' to the argument he gives. It's fair for others to point out that this isn't true.


I want to echo what someone else above said. Getting away from the formal Bayesian apparatus, what Swinburne is doing is really quite banal, and strikes me as on the exact right track, given that you want to present *reasons* for being (or remaining) a Christian. I'm no expert in epistemology, let alone Bayesianism, but here's the idea. Suppose I told you that I'd recently been visited by Apollo in my backyard. And suppose I told you that his command is that we rebuild the Parthenon or some such. Now, what sort of evidence are you going to require from me before you believed me? Seemingly, you'd require a whole lot -- anyway, much more than my mere testimony. You'd actually require something quite extraordinary -- say, further eyewitness testimony from another 50 people, video evidence, etc etc. Why? Because the prior probability you assign to an Apollo visitation is nearly 0 (if not 0, and let's say it isn't).

Note that a lot of folks nowadays are in (or claim to be in) a similar situation with respect to God's becoming incarnate in Christ, dying, and being raised again on the 3rd day. The sort of evidence they'll require to take this thesis seriously is extraordinary -- way beyond what's actually there, anyway. What Swinburne is trying to do is this. He's trying to raise your prior probability that there'd be such a thing as a resurrection. He first does this by arguing for the existence of God. For if you've already got that, or are at least prepared to take it seriously, then you'll be to that extent more inclined to take the resurrection story seriously. Then he argues that God, if there is a God, would be the sort of person who *would* become incarnate, and who *would* want to do the things we Christians take him to have done. All this is in service of the goal of *increasing* your prior probability that there would be such a thing as the resurrection, so that when you actually confront the historical evidence that it *did* happen, you'll be more sympathetic. That's the basic idea. The Bayesian stuff is just a way to model how our credences in certain propositions should shift, given new evidence and given our priors.

Now, I know a lot of people around these parts don't think we need (or shouldn't bother about) arguments for being or remaining Christians. Well, I and others disagree. We definitely do need such arguments. For the truth of Christianity isn't obvious. If you're interested in the truth, then I say you need them. And if you think that, Swinburne's program is (so it seems to me) the best game in town.

So I'd like to (with others) register my disappoint with this post. The 'argument' you give on Swinburne's behalf hardly makes sense. That should have been a pretty strong indication that what he's saying can't be 'boiled down' to that argument! Or is it likely that Swinburne -- who is, by all accounts, an extremely talented philosopher -- is that big of an idiot? (Who thinks that the probability of either side of any disjunction is always .5???) Charity and understanding certainly have not prevailed here!

Take care,

Unknown said...

I feel like Justin S. summed things up pretty well.

R.O. Flyer said...

I feel like Kim's joke summed things up pretty well.

Unknown said...

I think it's fairly clear, as Patrick helpfully pointed out, that Ben, indeed fails to understand both Bayesian probability in general and Swinburne's application of it. Insofar as Kim tried to defend Ben against this claim, he's pretty clearly wrong as well. That's not to say Kim doesn't have a point--it's just a retcon of sorts to read it in to Ben's post. Everything Shane has said here has been completely reasonable and well articulated. The disingenuous, contentless attacks on him are typically good evidence of this. However, Kim's joke was pretty good.

Unless of course one thinks that recklessly mocking concepts one does not understand is a fruitful use of time, in which case, carry on.

As for my remark on Justin's comment. I confess to pot-stirring, but I did get a good laugh out of it when I first read it.

J said...

Researchers use Bayesian methods when working with empirical and evidential matters, whether in social science, legal issues, or medical issues. But the events given--the "priors"-- are reasonable, ordinary hypotheticals--say, a person's guilt, or whether a proposed medicine works. Bayes' theorem in effect provides reasons for belief (odds), but does not really prove things.

A theological claim or supernatural claim does not admit of empirical confirmation, except to the most philistinish of believers (which Swinburne appears to be). It does seem improperly applied to religious issues (and banal as well).

However repulsive Humean thought may be to some, Hume--tho' a frequentist rather than bayesian (really, frequentism demands no belief in "belief")--was quite right re miracles (and contra-the inerrancy of scripture) insofar that he simply rejects any testimony of supernatural events, regardless if that was from 10 people, or 10,000; when a person on a witness stand begins to speak of angels and demons, her testimony is simply no longer reliable or useful.

As far as "analytical philosophy" goes for that matter, we might recall Marxy Marx himself, while taking issue with Hume's pal Adam Smith, generally considered the Anglo (and scottish) empiricists an improvement on scholastic and rational thinkers. Marx actually praised Hume--an economist and historian as well as filosophe--on occasion (I believe in the Brumaire), with reservations. The Encyclopedists also respected Hume.

Unknown said...

If the resurrection of Jesus doesn't admit of empirical confirmation, then I'm afraid most of us have a problem.

Halden said...

Hill, if you mean "If the resurrection didn't really happen" then yes, we would all have a problem. However if the resurrection can be "empirically confirmed" (and I don't see how this is different than "empirically proved"), then doesn't that mean it is not a profession of faith, merely an object of knowledge?

I mean, I don't have faith that I drove to work this morning, I know that for a fact on the basis of empirical confirmation. Is my belief in the resurrection just the same as my belief in the fact that I drove to work today?

Because I find that notion pretty absurd.

Christopher said...

J, at least you're honest about who you're indebted to for your presuppositions....

Unknown said...

It has to different than empirically proved, because empirically proved is an oxymoron of sorts, if by proved one is referring to deduction. (This is a basic confusion of Ben's original post as well. Swinburne isn't trying to "prove" anything.) I mean resurrection in the most basic sense of being dead for three days and then being alive again, all of which ought to be empirically confirmable, and were empirically confirmed by the Apostles, presumably (the episode of doubting Thomas is a stark example of this). That it would be difficult for us to empirically verify doesn't mean that it's not possible. All I'm saying is that the bodily resurrection of Christ purports to be a fact at some level. It either did or did not happen. That it was in fact empirically verified by people is the core of the Christian faith.

That "God" raised Jesus from the dead is a different story, but I still think there's a problem with rigorously restricting it from the realm of empirical facts. Presumably, (if you believe the Bible) that too will be empirically verified, it just hasn't happened yet.

I think the meaning of the word "empirical" here is a source of some ambiguity, but I think that gets directly at the nature of the Incarnation, which one could understand as that upon which the "empirical" has no purchase offering himself over to created sensibility. My hunch is that some "neutral" uses of the word empirical actually trade on a natural/supernatural distinction that Christianity can't support.

roger flyer said...

HEY! Where is my Laiphrog?!! WHAAAAT?
OK give me a Guinness and a biscuit.

J said...

Well, does Tacitus or Herodotus admit of empirical confirmation? No. No ancient historical record is "beyond a reasonable doubt". And I am not sure that an empirical, statistical treatment of the Bible should be considered superior to viewing the Bible as a collection of wisdom, history, literature, cultural tradition, etc.

Christ probably existed (given the reports, that seems warranted--but he doesn't appear in Roman annals until what 70-80 ad), but the veracity of JC's various acts and deeds (or any biblical character) is not "beyond a reasonable doubt", Bayes theorem or not (and again, ancient testimony is not really evidence, alas, as that scoundrel Hume pointed out. Arguably a mere report--ie miracle, mystic experience, etc-- should not be inputted as data into the little conditional probability equation).

It's a falsifiability issue as well (Popper may not be too PC, but he was not exactly a Dawkins-like naturalist). The Bible may feature wisdom, but it's dogma, not history, or science, or logic. In ways, understanding that distinction between dogma and empiricism might strengthen one's faith, or at least cause the reasonable person to examine his/her own beliefs.

Joshua Blanchard said...

Again, contrary to the scoffing in many comments here (and so-called "jokes"), it's not relevant whether or not someone thinks that the resurrection is a "faith" matter, however faith is understood. Swinburne says most apologetic about the resurrection has been historical, which is correct. Swinburne then spends the bulk of his book showing that (1) background knowledge and expectations are also (in addition to history) relevant to assessing evidence for historical claims, which is correct, and that (2) such considerations yield interesting correspondence to empirical evidence in the context of the resurrection, raising the probability of the resurrection. This final point is of course debatable, but only on Bayesian or historical grounds.

If some people don't even want to have this debate and want instead to believe in this historical claim without considering evidence of this nature, they are within their (moral, if not epistemic) rights. But notice that even if the resurrection should be taken on faith, even fideistically, Swinburne's analysis is just as philosophically reasonable. The resurrection could be some kind of faith event and very probable considering all the evidence.

John Hartley said...

I hesitate to join the fray after so many messages, but ...

The real problem with trying to calculate the "probability" that some historical event happened is not a mathematical but a philosophical one. "Probability" hinges on the idea that you can run a similar course of events lots of times, varying just the event in question and keeping everything else constant, and observe the changes which result. And, of course, you can't.

Even the simplest problem relying on Bayes' Theorem can be fraught with difficulties. The standard problem goes like this:

You are a contestant on a TV game show. There are three doors: behind one of them lurks a new car, and behind the other two lurk goats. You are trying to win the car. You choose a door, but instead of opening it, the game-show host picks a different door, opens it and displays a goat, and invites you to change your choice. Should you change to the third door, or should you stick to your first choice?

Well, the standard text-book answer is that you should change: there's a 1/3 probability that you picked the right door to start with, and a 2/3 probability that you were wrong. And if you were wrong, you now know where the car lies. So if you stick you have a 1/3 chance of winning the car, and if you change you have a 2/3 chance. Bayes' theorem bears this out ...

... or does it? The problem is that in the real world you have to ask yourself about the motives of the host. Is he trying to get you to win? In which case he would only have offered you the choice if you were about to pick a goat: so changing your choice is guaranteed to win you the car. Or is he trying to get you to lose? In which case he would only have offered you the choice if you had already picked the car: so if you change you'll guarantee to lose. Does he always offer contestants the chance of changing? If so, the above paragraph shows you increase your chances to 2/3 by changing. But if he doesn't always offer the choice ... if he is acting under some different principle ... then all your applications of Bayes' Theorem are ruined until you can establish what he is doing.

The inevitable conclusion is that you should have watched the TV show a lot of times before going on it. You should have calculated down to the last decimal the principles which the host is operating. You shouldn't on any account go into the show unprepared.

And that's the great problem here. We cannot rerun history numerous times and watch what happens in many parallel universes. We have arrived at the game show with no ideas of what motivates the host. All applications of Bayes' Theorem are futile.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Andrew Loke said...

In response to J and other scoffers, the biblical idea of faith is not exclusive of evidence. As Paul says to the Athenians, God 'has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished PROOF to all men by raising Him from the dead." (Acts 17:31; the use of the word 'proof' here is not necessarily referring to strict deductive proof; ordinarily we use this word to refer to inductive-deductive arguments as well. And ordinarily we have faith in things which we have good reasons to think are true).

The biblical idea of Jesus' bodily resurrection is not merely dogma, but also history. As long as a person does not beg the question by presupposing without adequate justification that miracles are impossible, he/she will see that Jesus' bodily resurrection is the most probable explanation for the beginning of the Christian movement. See my article on the resurrection published by Oxford University Press.

Anonymous said...

"Well, the standard text-book answer is that you should change: there's a 1/3 probability that you picked the right door to start with, and a 2/3 probability that you were wrong. And if you were wrong, you now know where the car lies. So if you stick you have a 1/3 chance of winning the car, and if you change you have a 2/3 chance. Bayes' theorem bears this out ..."

I stopped reading your post after this paragraph. There WAS a 2/3 probability that you picked a goat. After a goat is shown behind another door, there is NOW a 1/2 probability that you picked a goat. If you switch doors at this point, there is still a 1 in 2 chance that you picked a goat.


Anonymous said...


you're wrong, see link:

Shane said...

"I stopped reading your post after this paragraph. There WAS a 2/3 probability that you picked a goat. After a goat is shown behind another door, there is NOW a 1/2 probability that you picked a goat. If you switch doors at this point, there is still a 1 in 2 chance that you picked a goat."

This is hilarious.

Anonymous said...

heard of a level?



Anonymous said...

in other words, see what absurdity follows when you're dealing with a different monty-hall problem.


J said...

The Bayesians misread the Monty Hall problem as well. The initial conditions no longer hold once Monty shows door #3 with a goat, and makes a new offer. There's no mystery. It's a new hand, and merely 50/50 odds. Indeed, try it a thousand times (ie frequentist methods)-- three card monty (and that would be the real confirmation whether Bayesian methods work or not). There's no way that the one revealed card (or door) affects a new choice, at least as the MH problem is offered (with Monty knowing the right answer)--as with like poker, or blackjack, the odds are not stable, but continually changing. Your subjective hunch seems important, but really isn't. Were you to play blackjack for a few days (and had the shekels) with standard house rules (usually like 51-49 favoring the house) the law of large numbers takes over, and you would lose.

One might say the same about alleged supernatural or miraculous occurrences. Given a few thousand years with no reliable miraculous "anomalies" (ie angels stopping Napoleon, or panzer divisions, or maoists), we can be pretty sure miracles don't occur (and thus neither does divine intervention via prayer, or priest).

james said...


The Monty Hall problem certainly does work. Try it. I have. Get three cards, make your pick, have someone flip a "goat" over, then ALWAYS switch and you will be right 2/3 of the time. If you NEVER switch you will be right 1/3 of the time. Of course you must do it about 21 times or so to take out randomness. Maybe you get this and you are speaking of something more profound? If Monty could accidentally pick the car then your 50/50 would be right, but Monty is making a non-random revelation with his pick which determines what you should do next, on average.

Greg the Explorer said...

So, let me see if I've got this straight:

(x-3i)(x+3i) = 0

x^2-9i^2=x^2+9 not x^2+9x

Therefore you're all wrong

james said...

A profound silence.....

QED, the resurrection.

Anonymous said...

Honestly - there is so much that can be parodied in theology also . . . All this talk about ... the God event, unfolding of the inner logic of history . . . as the Holy Spirit is the future of the future itself as the future to the future ... in the Spirit of futurity .... yada yada yada ... So much theology is nothing but a mouthful of hay.

Anonymous said...

The problem with so many Christian theologians is that you guys are pansies. You're like timid, gilded animals.

But if you think you can safely thump your chests by tearing away at a strawman that will likely impress the secular-minded (whose approval you so desperately covet), you'll do it.

You don't know jack about seriously analytic philosophy and (amazingly!) even less about what serious Christian thinkers who do useful philosophical theology are saying.

Incidentally, I'm a doctoral student in theology but am hopeful that the Lord is preparing a few more like myself--I mean, theologians with balls, who don't bail out on everything that smacks of natural theology simply because non-Christians are perturbed by it. Let them be perturbed.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

"I'm a theologian with balls", says the anonymous poster...

cynthia r. nielsen said...

I'm a theologian without balls, and I really hope that you don't reproduce yourself. We have too many "theologians with balls" these days and need a few more after the manner of Rowan Williams, i.e. generous,careful scholars.

Ben Myers said...

Well said, Cynthia. I would trust those balls as far as I can throw them. And seriously, anyone who uses the word "pansies" is obviously a person of dubious moral character...

Anonymous said...

Well Ben,

It's evident that you don't understand Bayesian analysis. So I'm not sure why you attack it. Unless your aim is to show your ignorance. (I'm the theologian with balls by the way.)

I understand that many theologians who do not have a sufficient background in analytic philosophy are put off by what many Christian philosophers are doing.

You've carved out a little academic ghetto for yourselves by announcing to the world "We're not trying to prove anything! We're just talking amongst ourselves here. Please don't be troubled by us!" The philosophers don't care for that sort of hand-wringing.

They are chasing you out of your ghetto and putting you out of business. We know that the humanities in general are becoming cannibalistic and theology has survived by being benign and unobtrusive.

Serious arguments by Christian philosophers are anything but unobtrusive. And once you've been chased out of your ghetto and forced to drop your Barthian double-talk, the poverty of your sort of theology is evident.

So feel free to mock things you don't understand (an ironic course of action for the generous, careful scholars here) but also understand that you won't last long.

kim fabricius said...

Frosty wind made moan. Have an eggnog, Grinch, and cheer up.

Anonymous said...

Sweet comeback, Kimmy!

The weak-kneed would have preferred that the prophets not pee-pee in the punch.

But, alas, prophets have to pee-pee in the punch. I'm more than happy to pee-pee in your watered down punch.

Adrian said...

A self-styled prophet rarely is one. While you seem to have all the moral indignation, and perhaps a bit of the pomposity, a prophet you ain't. However, do tell me how your next soul winning goes, I'm pretty sure the bayesian analysis will be a huge hit, although do be sure to get rid of that pesky holy spirit, it has a habit of getting in the way.

Anonymous said...

Holy Shit you lot are boring. You've got the up-tight analytic lot crying and pissing their drawers on the one side of the issue and then you've got the other lot dismissing anything that's not sexy. Not sure which group annoys me more. I tend to sympathise with the latter but when pressed by the former group, their humour is so nerd-esque that I'm really quite embarrassed. Go get some beer in your bellies and go for a walk in the fresh air. Too many numbnuts with blogs.


Anonymous said...

Thank God the blog police showed up.

You'll notice how they've both seen through and become exasperated by the chicanery displayed on both sides of the question.

They are being in the epistemic position to rightly scold both sides for excessive nincompoopery. Positioning oneself in the middle while not becoming entirely involved is a sure sign of intellectual sophistication.

james said...

Please, everyone, if you take nothing else from this thread just go use the Monty Hall card trick to steal money from your little relatives this Christmas. It's the only guaranteed return you get with a theological education. And they deserve it anyway.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the party, thank God.

I don't put much stock in philosophical arguments for God, so if Ben had made his point a little more respectfully I might have agreed with him. But he obviously misunderstood the argument and yet was arrogant about it, and there's something about a person who is both ignorant and proud of it that rubs me the wrong way.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, the mere appearance of the likeness of rational argumentation in theological discourse is - - out of court! Don't you see, Ben, how ridiculous this makes you look to everyone - - Christian theologians and non-Chrsitians alike - - not of your particular Barthian sensibility? Surely the Barthian tradition will end up dying out if it continues to behave like this. I hope this particular stream does end up extinct. This guy gets it right.

Anonymous said...

I'm still laughing about klatu...and Monty Hall...not the "problem," just the thought of goats behind doors.

Petr said...

The notion that the Incarnation has anything whatsoever to do with "probability" or "likelihood" is absurd on its face. Good job, Ben.

Doesntmatter said...

I love how Shane's rigorous rebuke of Ben is nothing more than an appeal to authority: "Swinburne is the expert on this stuff, so I'm going to believe what he says." How very analytical.

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