Science and Other Drugs

….maybe a little less wrong….

The atheist’s crutch: Misusing probability

When it becomes apparent that Christians like myself are depending primarily on history for empirical evidence of God’s involvement in history (imagine that!), atheists quite often appeal to probabilities….specifically, Bayesian probability.

Now, Bayesian probability is a complicated subject, but the relevant point here is that the probability of a particular event (or of a particular explanation being true) depends on its prior probability: the base rate of that particular event within the general population of events. Simply put, if a particular event is already known to be extremely rare, this “rareness” needs to be included in evaluating evidence for that event.

Bayes’ Theorem (image by mattbuck)

This becomes particularly important when we’re comparing competing explanations. Even if the evidence seems to point more toward one explanation, that explanation might not be the most probable if it was already very unlikely. For example, hearing a loud thunderous roar outside is good evidence that there’s a thunderstorm….unless, of course, you live in the desert outside Baghdad, where thunderstorms are vanishingly rare and roadside bombs are much more frequent.

It’s important because prior probabilities aren’t always easy to spot. For example, let’s say that you test positive for a very rare type of cancer, and the test is 80% reliable (in other words, 20% of the people who are cancer-free will get a false positive). You might conclude that you have an 80% chance of having the cancer….but you’d be wrong. The cancer is very rare to begin with, so your chances of being cancer-free and having a false positive are higher than your chances of having cancer in the first place.

The atheist argues that it doesn’t matter how improbable a natural explanation of the resurrection account is. The prior probability of a divine miracle is 0, so a naturalistic explanation is more likely no matter what.

Of course, this begs the question, and it’s bad math. An event without precedent doesn’t have a prior probability of zero; it has a prior probability that is undefined. But that doesn’t stop the atheist. As Jeff over at Randal Rauser’s blog argued:

We just don’t have any way of assessing the probability of the miracle option, and so there’s no reason to consider it a live option.

But that’s wrong.

Suppose archeologists uncover a previously undisturbed Mayan ruin next to what appears to be a large meteor impact crater. However, there are no meteor fragments. Mayan glyphs within the ruin say that demons fell from the sky in a great metal coconut and tried to draw the people away from the priests. The demons, it says, were ambushed and killed; their great metal coconut was dragged into the sea.

In among the ruins are carvings of a language unlike any known lexicon on Earth. Some of the symbols are numeric; they describe a series of primes and representations of the first five perfect numbers, along with a representation of pi and depictions of orbital mechanics. Finally, there are carved drawing which appear to depict a Dyson sphere at various stages of development.

Now, it’s entirely possible that all the elements of this discovery are all purely coincidental. Perhaps this branch of the Mayans had more knowledge of advanced mathematics than we had thought, and perhaps the whole “great metal coconut” was a myth that sprang up following a meteor impact that mysteriously left no fragments. Perhaps the depictions of a Dyson sphere are coincidences as well. It’s wildly unlikely, but it’s theoretically possible.

Yet this is what the skeptical atheist must maintain. Why? Well, we don’t have any past instances of alien landings on Earth, so we have no way of assessing the probability of the alien option. Clearly, then, there’s no reason to consider it a live option. No matter how strong the evidence for an alien landing was, the stubborn misapplication of prior probability would lead the atheist to insist that it was not an alien landing.

This is ridiculous, and it’s not at all the way we actually view reality. We don’t start life with a set of pre-defined prior probabilities; every event we are exposed to (personally or by someone else’s testimony) builds prior probability over time. If we had to know prior probability in order to evaluate ANY evidence, we wouldn’t be able to know anything at all.

More simply put: if you can’t believe in something unless you’ve already seen it at least once before, you can’t believe in anything at all. There’s a first time for everything.

Ultimately, the appeal to undefined prior probability is just a complicated way of neatly veiling unfalsifiability. If prior probability of a particular option is undefined, that doesn’t mean you can just throw the option out. It means purely Bayesian probabilistic analysis just isn’t going to work.

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75 responses to “The atheist’s crutch: Misusing probability

  1. LEjames 2013/05/21 at 14:03

    Are you suggesting that because atheists misuse laws of probability, that the resurrection account is therefore plausible?

  2. john zande 2013/05/21 at 14:28

    Way to complicate something rather simple. Now say it with me, PeW: “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”

    Again:

    “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
    “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
    “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
    “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
    “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
    “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
    “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
    “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 14:32

      “There has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.”
      “There has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.”
      “There has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.”
      “There has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.”
      “There has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.”
      “There has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.”
      “There has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.”
      “There has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.”
      “There has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.”

      And yet, if we found good evidence of an alien landing having happened, that wouldn’t keep us from accepting it as part of human history.

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 14:48

        🙂

        Ah, but aliens don’t defy the laws of physics. We can easily accept the possibility given the number of stars and presence of complex amino acids in space. Life elsewhere is highly probable.

        What you’re talking about doesn’t follow the same rules.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 14:50

        We can easily accept the possibility given the number of stars and presence of complex amino acids in space.

        Punting to possibility, I see.

        Are you seriously suggesting that you can provide a prior probability figure for alien landings on Earth?

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 14:53

        I would never contemplate such a thing. I’m merely stating that the probability of alien life is very high, and we don’t have to suspend every law of physics to accept it. Whether they’ve visited or not is not important.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 15:07

        Of course. But that still doesn’t give us prior probability. And there still has never been a single alien landing ever recorded in human history.

        I’m assuming the repeated bit about “suspending every law of physics” is just hyperbole, no?

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 15:15

        You wish it were!

        Now say it again with me:

        “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
        “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
        “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”
        “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history.”

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 15:16

        How is this anything other than question-begging?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 15:18

        That’s question-begging. Plain and simple.

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 15:20

        My huh was serious… i don’t know what you’re talking about. Enlighten me, please….

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 15:27

        Begging the question is when you embed your conclusion inside your premises. It’s a form of circular reasoning.

        The whole question is whether history records God’s actions. And so asserting “There has never been a single supernatural event ever recorded in human history” absolutely begs the question.

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 15:32

        Does it? Can you show me a recorded and verified supernatural event… one that has broken all the laws of physics?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 15:33

        That’s the whole subject of debate, is it not?

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 16:14

        Well, can you present me a single event when the laws of physics have been verifiably cheated?

        If not the subject is kinda’ moot, isn’t it?

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 16:25

        Now, now… I said verifiable, didn’t I?

        What you have there is a fairytale, no different to Sleeping Beauty.

        So, let’s try that again: name an observed, recorded and verifiable event that broke every law of physics.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 16:50

        And again, we beg the question.

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 17:00

        And again you avoid the question….

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 17:09

        If it broke every law of physics, I somehow doubt we’d be able to observe it. I don’t even know how you’d break every law of physics simultaneously, or why that’s a good metric, or what this has to do with the original post.

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 17:10

        So you’re admitting the resurrection is pure fantasy…. Good for you!

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 17:12

        Because THAT followed.

      • john zande 2013/05/21 at 19:31

        Well, you started it 😉

      • holly 2013/05/21 at 16:49

        Right…but are you suggesting we have found good evidence of supernatural events?
        if so…where?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 16:51

        Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

        I’ve explained several points of evidence elsewhere; the issue here was whether it’s proper to rule out a miraculous explanation based on prior probability.

      • holly 2013/05/21 at 17:28

        & a how exactly does one establish prior probability of a supernatural event?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 17:48

        You can’t. That’s the point. But that inability doesn’t mean you rule it out.

  3. Persto 2013/05/21 at 15:38

    Hume and Mackie both noted that miracles, as violations of the laws of nature, are logically coherent and are not logically impossible, but, be that as it may, one is never justified in believing in a miracle. The skeleton argument is:

    1) One ought to proportion one’s belief to the evidence.
    2) Sense perception is generally better evidence than testimony.
    3) Therefore, when there is a conflict between sense experience and testimony, one ought to believe according to sense perception.
    4) Sense perception does not reveal any miracles to us.
    5) Therefore, we are never justified in believing in miracles, but we are justified in believing in the naturalness of all events.

    Although, miracles, in the sense that they are contraventions of the laws of nature, are theoretically possible because of the innumberable instances of the uniformity of the laws of nature the probability that events conform to those laws must be enormous. And, as a result of the regularity of nature, all testimony that contradicts that regularity must be weighed against the enormous probability of events conforming to the laws of nature. Furthermore, under the principle of induction one should be willing to pursue the cause of the extraordinary event far enough back until one discovers the natural cause. The only exception I can think of is if the miracle’s non-happening would be a greater miracle than its happening.

    Mackie added to this by pointing out that a miracle like being raised from the dead has the double burden of proof of showing that not only did the event take place but that it also violated the laws of nature, which makes it most improbable that any testimony could outweigh the belief that Jesus was not resurrected. Of course, the argument against miracles is not a knockdown proof. It appears that uncertainty is the best we can do on the matter.

    However, having said that, I think Swinburne has a very good point that if one interprets a miracle within the framework of a wider metaphysical system its actuality is more promising. The topic of miracles should not be isolated from the larger more comprehensive set of one’s beliefs. For instance, if one believes the ChristianGod exists, then one would be more likely to accept that that being can manipulate the laws of nature. It seems background assumptions play a large role in one’s decision to believe that miracles occurred.

    Also, something I haven’t seen addressed in the comments thus far, is that one could believe that miracles are not violations of the laws of nature, but are rather just, as R.F. Holland put it, “extraordinary coincidences of a beneficial nature.” That they are a sort of ‘weak’ miracles. The miracle doesn’t violate the laws of nature but is just a seemingly marvelous event–an instance of a rare combination of intersecting laws. God just guides the process.

    Regards

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 16:13

      Point 4) of the skeleton argument embeds an unsubstantiated argument from silence. Sense perception only supercedes testimony if testimony contradicts sense perception….for example, if someone tells me I’m floating in midair when I am quite certain I’m standing on the ground.
      Unless there is something incongruous about accepting a particular miracle claim despite having not witnessed any miracles myself, there’s no contradiction.

      Moreover, testimony CAN supercede sense perception directly. That is, for example, how most of us initially come to the belief that the world is not flat.

      Ultimately, the question is which wider metaphysical system best explains all of reality.

      • Persto 2013/05/21 at 18:49

        In our everyday sense perception natural law prevails. The testimony for a miracle, that violates the laws of nature, would contradict that sense perception.
        ***
        Yes, but the testimony that the earth is not flat is not violating the laws of nature. Testimony that suggests that the laws of nature have been violated must be weighed against the enormous probability that events conform to the laws of nature.

        I agree with the last bit, but I am confused as to why Jesus’ Resurrection is such a big bloody deal. I guess, for most Christians, belief in God and belief in Jesus may be the same sort of belief because of the inclinations of Christian theology, but the beliefs are, in truth, different. It is only through a category-error that they can be brought into alignment. Belief in God can be argued philosophically and theologically. (If theologically the arguments are similar to Anselm’s or Aquinas) but the existence of God is not a question for history, though certain ways of thinking about him are of historical importance.

        Belief in Jesus on the other hand can be argued historically or theologically–though it is a different sort of theology, but not philosophically. If belief in Jesus is to be argued historically we have to read the Gospels differently then the way the Gospels are written. Normally, to prove the existence of a historical person you would have records, reports, artifacts, or writings of other people who mention that person in specific occurrences. We do not have that. What we have are the writings of people who had very specific and self-interested reasons for portraying Jesus in a certain way. And this portrayal differs markedly from the writings of histories by the Romans in the second and third century. For this reason, scholars have admitted for a long time the problem of deriving Jesus from the Gospels or Paul or any NT writing for that matter. I am not saying the Gospels are entirely fabricated. Just that the line between the supernatural and reality is not always obvious in ancient writings. Just look at Homer or Herodotus(and those are histories.). So, if one is going to prove something about Jesus that individual must read the bible differently than the way the bible was written. That person must attempt to separate fact from myth and attempt to create a plausible framework for Jesus’ actions and life, which, in all likelihood, will be markedly different from the explanations of Jesus in the NT.

        I suppose my point is that Jesus probably wasn’t resurrected–maybe he didn’t even exist–but so what? That has nothing to do with God. I don’t think the Muslims; or the Jews; or the Hindus; or the Buddhists; or even certain Christian sects are going to be very much bothered by that fact. There is this idea that if you refute Jesus, then you have refuted God. Nonsense. You’re not even in the same ballpark. In fact, the only commonality between Jesus and God is that they are both discussed in the bible. Jesus just much later. Of course, certain modes of theology claim Jesus was a god or the son of God, but most NT scholars think that is not what the NT really says or meant to say. Saying god does not exist is not the same as saying Jesus did not exist or vice versa.

        Regards

      • Mark Hamilton 2013/05/22 at 11:20

        I’m hoping this will reply to Persto’s next comment, but in case it doesn’t that’s who I’m trying to talk to.

        I just wanted to point out that a miracle does not by necessity break the laws of nature. If I jump out of a second story window the laws of nature would allow someone to predict that I would hit the ground with enough force for me to be injured by my impact with the ground. But if a firefighter shows up and catches me then I’ll be alright, despite what was predicted. The laws of nature tells us what will happen provided we know all the variable involved. If God exists then he is a variable that must be taken into account, a variable that could interact with the world and change the outcome of events. These events would be miracles, but they would follow the laws of nature the same as the firefighter intervening on my behalf. So, if what you mean by miracles is “God intervening in the world to change outcomes”, then I think there is no reason to believe that miracles break the laws of nature. C. S. Lewis, in his book “Miracles,” put it better than I ever could:

        “The laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way—but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side—why, then, you won’t get what the scientist predicted…in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered—then the course of events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere.”

        So the question is, how probable is it that God would interfere? Which leads us back to the question, does God exist and what is his character like?

      • Persto 2013/05/22 at 14:46

        Hi Mark,

        Thanks for the response!

        If you look at the last two paragraphs of my initial comment I make the exact same points. Perhaps, I was not very clear in my first comment. I am not attempting to be overly exclusionary. If God exists, then I believe each sense is valid: the weaker sense of an extraordinary coincidence and the stronger sense of a violation of the laws of nature. I think the weaker sense is much more sensible and defensible, but the stronger sense is much more philosophically interesting and, as we have seen on this comment thread, controversial. Hence, much of my comment is geared towards discussing the stronger sense of a violation of the laws of nature.

        Now, I, just like a logician worth his salt, find nothing logically impossible or incoherent about the stronger sense of miracles. They are theoretically possible, but, as I stressed to physics, the testimony for a miracle must be weighed against the mountainous evidence in favor of the uniformity of nature. So, in my mind, on the probability scale the likelihood of a miracle happening will virtually always be outweighed by the law of nature.

        However, if one utilizes Swinburne’s method of interpreting a stronger sense miracle within the framework of a wider metaphysical system, then its actuality is much more promising. For instance, if someone believes God exists, then that individual might expect that same God, who created the laws of nature, to override the laws of nature in certain situations e.g., the Resurrection. Also, as I said to physics, background assumptions are a very important aspect of the stronger sense miracle discussion.

        Changing speeds, one problem with the weaker sense strategy employed by Clive is that it still seems to require God to manipulate the laws–by breaking the normal cause-event relationship–so, in a way, God is still violating the laws of nature. However, if one does not propose that God intervenes, but only guides the process whereby certain types of events are always followed by a definite kind of other event–for example, the law of gravitation entails that, within Earth’s gravitational zone, objects will fall downward toward Earth at an acceleration of 32.17 ft/sec/sec or ft/sec^2–then God would not be violating or manipulating the laws of nature. On the contrary, God would only be utilizing a rare combination of intersecting laws that creates the appearance of a stronger sense miracle, but, in truth, it wasn’t an interventionist miracle; it just happened in the common course of nature. From this vantage point, God would fully understand the laws of nature–omniscience, from my understanding, is just knowledge of all truths–and guides the process that results in events, that are seemingly violations of those laws, at her leisure.

        Regards

      • Mark Hamilton 2013/05/23 at 12:12

        I really don’t think we’re understanding each other here. You keep talking as if God taking action in the world by necessity breaks the laws of nature or upsets the cause effect relationship. My point is that God is an active agent, like a human being. If I put ten coins in a box, the laws of nature tell me that, provided nothing interferes with the box, I will have ten coins in it when I open it up next week. But if someone breaks into the box and takes the coins, I’ll open it up to find no coins at all. The miracle of the resurrection is similar. So many people act as if Christians are claiming that Jesus came back to life without anything intervening at all. That would be breaking the laws of nature, to be sure. We know that dead bodies do not come back to life on their own. But if God brings a body back to life, where is the conflict? What laws are broken? Even now if you “die on the table” during an operation doctors can bring you back to life. Are they breaking the laws of nature too?

      • Persto 2013/05/23 at 14:24

        Hi Mark,

        “The miracle of the resurrection is similar. So many people act as if Christians are claiming that Jesus came back to life without anything intervening at all. That would be breaking the laws of nature, to be sure. We know that dead bodies do not come back to life on their own. But if God brings a body back to life, where is the conflict? What laws are broken? Even now if you “die on the table” during an operation doctors can bring you back to life. Are they breaking the laws of nature too?’

        There is no conflict, necessarily. I think we agree in the main. Did you read my last paragraph?

        However, for God to physically intervene in the world by performing…a resurrection would require at least two things, in my mind: highly advanced medical knowledge and physical interaction. God has one–omniscience–but the other one is a bit more complicated. If God interacts, physically, with the world, then she must either sacrifice her omni qualities–no longer God–or she must violate the laws of nature because nothing possessing God’s characteristics can be a part of finite space-time and would, thereby be a direct violation of the common course of nature–it would be a stronger sense miracle, more or less.

        Regards

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 14:28

        What do you mean by the term “stronger sense miracle”?

        When we talk about a “violation of the common course of nature”, we have to keep in mind that all our tests of natural laws necessarily involved purely physical entities. We cannot test whether it is possible for a supernature entity to alter the common course of nature.

      • Persto 2013/05/23 at 15:01

        Read my first comment to Mark. I explain what I mean in that comment. In fact, you should probably read all of my comments on this thread.

        Yes, I agree. As I have already said, I think a supernatural entity performing a stronger sense miracle is logically possible and logically coherent, although I find it improbable based on my probability scale.

        However, what I don’t think is logically possible or coherent is a supernatural entity interacting in the physical world, while remaining a supernatural entity. It is too contradictory. The actual infinite becomes part of the finite. The unlimited becomes part of the limited. The unconstrained becomes part of the constrained. The supernatural becomes part of the natural world. Yet, even if this is logically possible, it would still, most certainly, violate what we understand about the way in which natural phenomena operates. Not that that makes a miracle impossible, but it does make it a violation of the laws of nature, since any alteration of the physical processes would be the result; not of natural phenomena, but of supernatural phenomena, which would eliminate discovering the purely natural cause that brought about the physical alteration. It is not a strong sense miracle if it happens in the common course of nature, in other words, has a natural cause. However, if it does not happen in the common course of nature, then it is a strong sense miracle, but it is also a violation of the laws of nature.

        Regards

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 15:10

        But how is this approach anything other than victory by fiat?

        Analogy: I write a virtual reality computer program. I have an avatar in that program. I alter the constraints surrounding my avatar so he can do things other avatars cannot do.

      • Persto 2013/05/23 at 15:24

        Well, I am not sure which part of the approach you are referencing specifically?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 15:26

        “Miracles would require a supernatural agent to act in nature. Only natural agents can act in nature. Thus, miracles cannot happen.”

        Isn’t that begging the question?

      • Persto 2013/05/23 at 16:49

        Yes, if that were my argument. This is my argument:

        If one does not propose that God intervenes, but only guides the process whereby certain types of events are always followed by a definite kind of other event–for example, the law of gravitation entails that, within Earth’s gravitational zone, objects will fall downward toward Earth at an acceleration of 32.17 ft/sec/sec or ft/sec^2–then God would not be violating or manipulating the laws of nature. On the contrary, God would only be utilizing a rare combination of intersecting laws that creates the appearance of a stronger sense miracle, but, in truth, it wasn’t an interventionist miracle; it just happened in the common course of nature. From this vantage point, God would fully understand the laws of nature–omniscience, from my understanding, is just knowledge of all truths–and guides the process that results in events, that are seemingly violations of those laws, at her leisure. I think this because I believe a supernatural entity interacting in the natural world while remaining a supernatural entity is contradictory.

        However, I do believe God could change the elliptical orbit of the Earth or the fact that one gram of hydrogen contains 303 x 10^21 molecules or that arsenic is poisonous, theoretically, but, in my mind, that alteration would come about through entirely natural means. I say this because our understanding of the physical world seems to be largely, if not entirely, mathematical abstractions. Math captures the natural world in an unreasonably effective way. Einstein wondered how math, “fits so excellently the objects of physical reality?” Life in the universe seems remarkably well adjusted to the existence of certain interesting and significant entities e.g., stable stars. And mathematics is the backbone of the physical constants that allow for such things. Apparently, we live in a mathematically structured universe, even if the math attributed to the world e.g., quantum mechanics, doesn’t always make sense to us.

        Considering this, and my belief that God cannot make {d}/{dx} e^x = (x e^{x-1} nor can God say that something is and is not in the same respect at the same time nor can God make the sum of the angles of a Euclidean triangle be 190 degrees. The only way God could effectuate a miracle is through a comprehensive knowledge of all of natural law, which entails a comprehensive knowledge of mathematics and logic, that is applied in specific situations but doesn’t contravene the laws of nature, which are supported by values and universalities that God, in my opinion, cannot contravene, in any logical sense.

        Regards

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 17:07

        Okay, so you’re asserting that because mathematics describes nature, a miracle would require various mathematical quantities to take logically impossible values?

        What logical contradiction would be implicit in God causing a sodium ion to emit a 550nm photon without dropping into an unexcited state?

      • Persto 2013/05/23 at 18:12

        Yes, that is it, but I don’t think the values would be logically impossible, just exceedingly improbable, which, I guess, could make them, for all intents and purposes, impossible, so yes I might agree with that entirely. And, as a result, the miraculous would be a perfectly natural occurrence that has, merely, the appearance of the miraculous, and might remain seemingly a miracle for the duration of our species existence–which is to say, that, even if we don’t understand the miraculous event, it doesn’t mean it’s non-natural. For example, before Einstein postulated that the speed of light with respect to any inertial frame is independent of the motion of the light source, and explored the consequences of that postulate by deriving the special theory of relativity and showing that the parameter c had relevance outside of the context of light and electromagnetism, the Universe still had a maximum speed limit, although for the better part of our species’ existence people have been ignorant of that fact and might even have found it divine or miraculous at certain periods in history–of course it is divine, in a way–yet it is a perfectly natural explanation.

        I would say that nothing is logically contradictory about that. However, what I find logically confused is an actual infinite being interacting and operating within the parameters a finite world. Or a timeless being being subject to time. These things make no sense to me. How can a timeless or infinite being be physically present in a finite region of space-time? This is where my objection lies.

        Regards

      • Persto 2013/05/24 at 11:58

        I just wanted to add something briefly because I think it may help clear things up. The reason I say God cannot contravene the laws of nature, in the biblical sense, is that the laws of nature depend upon certain mathematical and, perhaps, more importantly physical constants and that natural world has a definite logical structure. So, seeing as how most would agree that God cannot make a three-sided square or make A be non-A. But if one does not agree and asserts that God can do anything, even contradictory things, then they have opened the door for the entrance of many logical puzzles like can God create a stone too heavy for God to lift? If one answers this question in any other way than God can do anything that is not a logical contradiction, then they have sacrificed an aspect of God’s character that would make her not God. The same would be true for mathematical riddles. Can God make 1=0? Again, if one answers this question in any other way than God can do anything that is not a mathematical contradiction, then they have sacrificed the existence of God or, even, the world. Hence, if God is going to perform a miraculous event she must do so while not violating the logical and mathematical structure of the Universe, which the natural law ultimately depends upon, because to do so would be to violate Her own nature and sacrifice Her creation’s and Her own existence.

        However, I do believe God effectuates miracles, but they are weaker sense miracles and not contraventions of the laws of nature.

        Regards

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/24 at 12:04

        How does God effect a weaker sense miracle?

      • Persto 2013/05/24 at 12:10

        Rare combination of intersecting laws or through extraordinary coincidences of a beneficial nature or through a utilization of a comprehensive knowledge of the mathematics and logic of the Universe.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/24 at 12:12

        But how does God effect them? What does God do to bring about extraordinary coincidences? And how is the comprehensive knowledge used?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/24 at 12:12

        I mean, if you had total knowledge of all quantum states and the ability to alter any probabilities, you could do anything….

      • Persto 2013/05/24 at 12:21

        Perhaps…….in the quantum world there are all sorts of contradictions. Maybe there is a quantum logic and a classical logic? Either way the persistent difficulty in understanding quantum mechanics has been understanding what it means for the world to have the structure that the mathematics seems to attribute to it, so perhaps God could do anything, if she had perfect knowledge, although I still have trouble with that concept.

        Good discussion. Helped me work through some things. Thanks.

        Regards

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/24 at 12:22

        I guess I’m trying to figure out how you understand interaction between God and the natural world. Is there any?

      • Persto 2013/05/24 at 12:25

        I believe a very limited interaction.

  4. violetwisp 2013/05/21 at 16:36

    I don’t really get why you think this is important. I don’t think a resurrection is impossible, I just think there the lack of evidence to support the whole story of Christianity (silly built up religion with lots of ridiculous nonsense in a horrible holy book), combined with shonky eye-witness accounts from 2000 years ago, doesn’t make me think there’s a chance that this one impossible event occurred. Moreover, I’m still confused as to why you think belief in Christianity rests on one this event. Jesus could easily have been the son of a god without a bag of supernatural tricks. The fact that he’s reported to have used supernatural tricks makes it all even less likely …

  5. Allallt 2013/05/21 at 17:32

    Skip the word “supernatural” for a moment (I’m documented in not liking it). There are a few options to explain the empty tomb. This is by no stretch all of them:
    * It’s all bunk, beginning to end.
    * The sour wine Jesus drinks in Matthew 27 (I think) may have been a chemical that made him look dead to the medical expert of the day.
    * A sympathiser of Jesus could have removed the body to bury it somewhere more discrete.
    * A Jewish traditionalist could have stolen the body to place it in a common grave
    * He actually came back from being for a long time.

    If I wanted to demonstrate that the last option was more likely than the combined probability of all the other options I have offered (limited though they are), what should my method be?
    Both grave robbers and outright mythology have precedent. Toxicology is recognised. Resurrection is a violation of other things that have been established.
    The religious claim is against a lot of things we know. The other claims are consistent with things we know.
    This is starting to look Bayesian again, isn’t it?

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/21 at 18:28

      Hey, nothing wrong with Bayesian analysis per se, as long as you aren’t begging the question on the basis of undefined prior probability!

      • Allallt 2013/05/22 at 03:17

        Okay, but when a claim violates a rule that has been true for as long as it has been investigable (which is as close to “always been true” as you can get), what is the antecedent probability then?
        … I suppose you’d have to find out how many times “natural laws” have been violated. That’s never happened, but certain events have extended or changed our understanding of natural laws. (If a phenomenon can become understood and be replicated then it is incorporated into natural law.)
        “Throughout history, every mystery, ever solved, has turned out to be… not magic” – Tim Minchin

        This is the difference between aliens landing and the resurrection. An alien landing has never ever been confirmed. But if aliens were to land it wouldn’t be a violation of anything we know. Like alien landings, a resurrection has never ever been confirmed. But it does violate what we know about biology.

        Yes, when a thing has never happened before its probability is not 0, it’s undefined. But when a thing violates other known things its probability tends rapidly towards 0 (in proportion to the level of confidence we know the known things are inviolate).

        No one has ever attempted to give me a Bayesian analysis of the resurrection before, but in words I’m sure I’ve only seen people tend towards the “because it would violate natural laws” explanation. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone do the “because it’s never happened before” explanation.

        Right, I’m sure I have now said the same thing four times. Hopefully my meaning has been clear at least one of those times…

    • rautakyy 2013/05/22 at 04:37

      By the way, there were no contemporary, or otherwise “medical experts” present at the crucifixion. Not at least according to the story. It claims, that Jesus being dead was proclaimed by the soldiers performing the execution. Oddly enough, this was right after the Jews had alledgedly asked for the Romans to stop the execution (because of their Passover festivities) and then these very same soldiers just handed over the body to a wealthy follower of Jesus, who had not abandoned him, as his nearest buddies had done. It certainly raises suspicion, that this dude just happened to be there and had allready asked the Roman commander (who was not present, but who had shown disinterrest and even been unwilling in killing this pacifist) to give him the body. Jesus was taken down from the cross than was usual and we have historical records of men surviving the crucifixion if they have been taken down early enough, because the entire method of execution was meant to be slow and painfull. We also know that the Roman law dictated the soldiers to severe punishments if they took bribes to sell the not yet dead convicts to their relatives and friends. Presumably such laws would never have been put up, if there were no instances where soldiers made an extra buck by this sort of corruption. But as the commander was not willing to execute Jesus, the soldiers had no reason to think their commander was interrested in pursuing punishment for selling Jesus from the cross. Or do you honestly think they gave him for free? He bled right before he was taken down and dead people do not bleed, do they? There was nobody present when the actual resurrection was claimed to have happened and the following stories contradict each other very much.

      Even in the stories themselves there is enough evidence to make a case that Jesus did not die for what ever reason, and that is how the resurrection story started.

      Eventually it is against all this and more “evidence” the propability of a claim, that the laws of nature were broken has to be set, and invariably such supernatural claims logically fail.

      As for the archeologists, it would be in accordance to their scientific integrity, to assume, that no aliens appeared, if the analogy of the Mayan story was to be analyzed. It would require extra evidence for aliens, than just the very high propability of aliens in the vast universe and the idea of aliens we have today, to interprete the ancient story as anything more than mere myth possibly derived from the meteorite hit. Archaeologists are scientists and do not jump to any conclusions about aliens on such a shifty evidence as the analogy presented. Sorry. This does not mean the Mayans did not wittness an alien landing, it only means, that an educated person has no excuses to jump into a belief that they actually did. The question would remain undecided, with the main assumption being, that the story is a myth. As we have an abundance of myths that could be interpreted as alien landings and no verified information of alien landings.

      Nobody ever said, there could not be a first time for anything, but what is said about the resurrection, is that it is such an extraordinary claim, it requires more evidence than just a bunch of dudes from the antiquity with invested interrests to claim such a thing happened even though none of them was present when it did. Besides, there are a lot of resurrection stories prior to Jesus. As a story it has all the properties of a fiction.

      When we are talking about propabilities, we are not asserting absolutes. Are we?

  6. Pingback: The atheist’s other crutch: Breaking the laws of physics | Science and Other Drugs

  7. Pingback: Letting Go of the Crutch: Probability and physics are on the atheists’ side | Allallt in discussion

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