I happened to be reading some blog posts on evidence in apologetics at the same time many of us were preparing for the public announcement of LIGO’s discovery. The combination in my mind is most likely what produced the following.
Apologists certainly do good work showing that Christianity doesn’t have the epistemic status of an urban legend, that the story as we have it was established close to the time of credible witnesses and preserved carefully thereafter. Scenarios that deny the Resurrection involve improbable stories about elaborate frauds, bizarre mass delusions, or spectacular misunderstandings of mushy spiritual talk. Hearing about them can certainly strengthen one’s faith. On the other hand…
Improbable events occasionally happen. Cultures are prone to look for, record, and propagate the memory of a particular kind of event: very improbable (plausibly miraculous) occurrences happening to persons with a body of followers. If you run random noise long enough through a pipeline designed to amplify any particular improbable signal, sooner or later…
One must take this into account for a proper detection statistic.
One might say that probability has nothing to do with the definition of a miracle, which is a suspension of the laws of nature. However, our assessment that a miracle has occurred must be probabilistic, because one can never be sure the laws of nature have been violated, first because we don’t have perfect knowledge of the laws of nature, second because we never have perfect knowledge of the event in question. For both the Higgs boson and gravitational waves, detection was claimed with a five sigma signal, which refers to the improbability of other effects creating the same signal by chance over the data collection period.
The consequences of this line of thought are surprising. From naturalistic assumptions, the longer humanity endures and records its experiences, the more spectacularly improbable, plausibly-miraculous events are likely to occur, especially given an increasing population that gets better and better at recording events and faithfully transmitting them. If Jesus had raised from the dead today, our detection statistic would be much higher, because we currently must fold in the possibility of exaggerations in transmission. The (naturalistic) probability of Christianity is the probability of any bizarre scenario that leads to such a story getting out OR any bizarre scenario whereby the record is suchwise deformed in the first few decades. P(A or B) > max(P(A),P(B)). Eventually, something so unusual will happen while being so carefully recorded that, if taken in isolation from these considerations, it would exceed anybody’s credulity threshold.
What keeps accounts of supernatural phenomena from being more convincing is, in fact, humanity’s willingness to believe. Events that exceed the average credulity threshold all get taken about equally seriously, even though some are much “better detections” than others. Putative miracles lose impact from occurring in an environment already crowded with previous miracles. Again, I am imagining now how things must look to a naturalist. Our evidence of miracles at Lourdes may be more impressive than our evidence for the resurrection of Lazarus, but Catholicism was already there to absorb Lourdes, so it is historically less important.
How could we know if the miracle which exceeds our own credulity threshold is actually the tail end of a smooth probability distribution? Perhaps if we looked at the occurance rate of slightly and somewhat less improbable events, but unfortunately society is rigged to record only events near or above its credulity threshold.
A cynic would marvel at the post-conciliar canonization procedure. The actual investigation gets shorter and shorter. Things are left to God by demanding a miracle. Encourage enough people to pray to so-and-so when they get sick, then wait long enough, and a sufficiently odd and unexplained event will occur. If we really wanted God’s opinion, perhaps we should give Him a one-year window, but that would obviously be putting Him “to the test”.
From God’s point of view, there’s no point in producing a miracle must more spectacular than the public’s credulity threshold. It won’t buy Him anything. Anyway, the value of a miracle always goes down in time, because one’s evidence becomes more and more remote. God could have waited to send Jesus to us today so that everything could be on TV, but that would have meant sacrificing dozens of generations that needed the Gospel.
Looking across the field of major religions, Christianity seems to me to stand out for its historical credibility–major miracles of which we have record not too far from the supposed event, at least not as far as what looks to me to be the world norm. I certainly wouldn’t call it impressive enough to base my faith upon, though. To the extent that I am a Christian not only because it is my inherited faith (and, being a conservative, I am not at all ashamed of inheriting faith) it is because of what I would call the internal evidence of Christianity: the way it seems to be right about non-obvious things, the way it tells us something new about God that we wouldn’t have guessed on our own yet seems to deepen what we already knew.
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