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Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 6)

April 26, 2016

Another class of objections would try to argue that the Bayes' factors I used in my argument are too large. One possible objection along this line of thought might go like this:

"1e8 is a ridiculously large Bayes' factor for people's testimonies. People make mistakes all the time in their testimonies. Do you not know, for instance, how inaccurate eyewitness testimonies are? It is far more likely that the reports of Jesus's resurrections are mistakes of this type, rather than an accurate depiction of the events."

First, let's go over a few things before we tackle the specific issue on the reliability of eyewitnesses. The value for Bayes' factor that I used - 1e8 - is derived from the strength of a human testimony in general, with relatively few conditions attached to it. It is the typical value to be assigned for someone saying "yes, this really happened". Of course, if you start adding conditions to it, these will change the value of the Bayes' factor. So, I have no problem acknowledging that eyewitness testimonies can often be mistaken, and that it's in human nature to give flawed testimonies under certain conditions. In such conditions the Bayes' factor for a testimony must rightfully be severely discounted. However, one must also acknowledge that there are also conditions that dramatically enhance the value of human testimony - note the previous example of a recording a chess game, where a human testimony can have a Bayes' factor exceeding 1e120.

There is therefore bound to be a number of objections which effectively say "see how unreliable humans are (in these specific circumstances)!" What we must do, then, is to compare the circumstances in these objections to the actual circumstances surrounding the testimonies about the resurrection. We will see that, upon actually making this comparison, the testimonies for the resurrection are actually strengthened, rather than weakened, at nearly every turn by the specific circumstances surrounding them.

So, let's tackle the issue of eyewitness testimonies. The question of unreliable eyewitness testimonies typically come up in a courtroom setting, where a bystander is identifying someone they saw during an incident under investigation. A common example may have a policeman asking a witness, "now ma'am, can you point out which one of the fellows in that lineup was the one that pointed the gun at the cashier?"

Now, let's identify some of the common circumstances surrounding these events, about which such testimonies are made:

The witness is nearly always a bystander - a stranger who was previously not familiar with any of the actors in the crime. 

The event in question often takes place in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. Witnesses are often caught by surprise - the crime takes place at its own pace, with no regard for making things easy for the witnesses. Indeed criminals often rely on the shock and the quick pace of the events to hinder possible identification and later prosecution. 

There is often extreme stress placed upon the witnesses, who are fearing for their immediate personal safety. This may especially be the case if a weapon is present, which draws the focus of the victims or witnesses to it, and away from the proper identification of the perpetrator. 

Related to the above, witnesses in such testimonies are often not primarily concerned with the identity of the perpetrator. In the moment, they are often simply shocked by the event, or mainly concerned about their bodily safety.

Now compare these to the testimonies about Jesus's resurrection:

Jesus was the most important person in the disciples' lives. He was explicitly more important to them than their family members or hometown friends. They had been around each other constantly for the last several years, and were familiar with one another as much as anyone can be. 

Jesus's post-resurrection appearances occur multiple times, often in extended scenes where he converses with the disciples at length about what this all means. He eats with them, talks with them, and teaches them. Jesus furthermore specifically has these discussions for the benefit of the disciples, so that they can better understand his resurrection.  

The pervasive mood during these post-resurrection appearances must have been awe and excitement. There is an optimal amount of stress for peak human performance, at a level which is neither too little (with accompanying boredom and lethargy) nor too much (with accompanying nervousness and panic). Speaking with the risen Christ must have put the disciples near this optimum peak, with an exhilarating atmosphere pervading every moment of their discussion. 

The chief thought in the disciple's mind in each of these meetings must have been primarily about Jesus. 'Wow, it really is the Lord! He is risen from the dead! What could this all mean?' He commanded their wholehearted attention at each of these post-resurrection meetings.

So upon making this comparison, the result is clear. For each of the factors which causes courtroom eyewitness testimonies to be unreliable, the disciples' testimonies about Jesus are found to have the exact opposite property: they're testifying about someone they know very well (instead of a stranger), about events which happened repeatedly over an extended period of time (instead of being over in a flash), under the optimal amount of stimulation (rather than under crippling fear), with the person of Jesus as the chief object of their focus (rather than being shocked or focused on their immediate bodily safety). Insofar as the circumstances surrounding a typical courtroom eyewitness testimony cause them to unreliable, the same reasoning requires that the disciples' testimonies would then be especially reliable.

To put it simply, the example of unreliable courtroom witnesses only demonstrate how different the disciples' testimonies about the resurrection are. The disciples were not doing anything like saying "yes, that man with the red hair there is the man who pointed the gun at the cashier", with its accompanying uncertainty. No, their statement is rather more like a woman saying "yes, my husband really is the man I married at my wedding". Good luck finding many women who are mistaken about that.

Therefore, the Bayes' factor associated with the resurrection testimonies must be greater than they were in the unconditioned case. 1e8 may have seemed like an overestimate upon a superficial comparison, but a more careful consideration reveals that it is actually an underestimate: none of the factors that weaken a courtroom testimony are present, while all of their opposite qualities infuse the disciples' testimonies and correspondingly strengthen them.

We will continue with more objections next week.


You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith
Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July
Another post, from the table of contents

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