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The Sufficiency of Probability in Christian Faith

I often play a game with my kids that drives them crazy. Sitting in the room, with no one but us, while they are not looking I will slap them on the rear and act like I did not do it. They turn and say, “Daddy! I know you did that.” I say, “I did not.” ”Then who did it?” they respond (thinking they have settled the issue with this one question).  I say, “A guy ran into the front door and slapped you and then ran out.” They look at me like I am crazy. “Look!” I respond to their skepticism, “The door is not locked. It is obvious that someone could have come in since the door is not locked.” Faced with further looks of skepticism, I have them go check the door to see if it is locked or not. Once they check and see it is unlocked, I have won the day. I have poked a hole in their certainty and caused them to confirm it. No longer possessing the certainty I had required for their epistemic verification, they lose trust in their former confidence. In other words, I tricked them into thinking that one has to be absolutely certain about something before it can be believed.

Ideas about the value of certainty are currently on the theological stage of debate. With the postmodern push toward perpetual skepticism that gives way to necessary compromise and a redefining of tolerance, along with many in the church responding by appealing to a fideist approach to the faith (ignore the evidence, just believe), Evangelicals are left scratching their heads, wondering why we are checking the door to see if it is locked.

“You can’t be certain that Christianity is true. Some have said that it borrowed from other ancient religions to get its story.”

“You can’t be certain Christ rose from the grave since his body might have been stolen.”

When a suspicious world says that we cannot be certain about anything because of the alternative possibilities, we find ourselves defending a position drunk with its own form of compromise. When people poke holes in our beliefs with arguments no better than “look, the door is not locked!” we find ourselves missing the big picture, attempting to argue about the security of the door.

How did we get here?

The father of the so-called Age of Reason, Rene Descartes, was commissioned by a cardinal in the church to find a way of attaining a level of certainty that went beyond mere probability. With skepticism on the rise, probability was looked at as the ugly step-sister of the indubitability that accompanied absolute certainty. Indubitability equates to infallible knowledge—knowledge that can’t be wrong. Prove without a shadow of a doubt that God exists by mere intuitive resources. That was Descartes’ commission.

(Let me repeat as this may be a new word to some of you. Indubitability describes the impossibility of being wrong due to an exhaustive and infallible method of inquiry; it means something is beyond the possibility of question or doubt.)

There was celebration at Descartes’ seeming defeat of the skepticism of his day. His “I think, therefore I am” looked as if it provided a bridge to attain the type of certainty to which humans have never been privy.  His methodology, which became known as “the Cartesian method,” was adopted in large part by those in the West. And thus began the Age of Reason, where certainty—indubitable certainty—reigned supreme.

Christianity was never bound by any sort of indubitability from a human perspective. We have never been required to check the lock on any door. In fact, no one actually can or does live by such a standard in the acquisition of truth.

But alas, we often think we are supposed to. We have turned “the evidence that demands a verdict” into “the evidence that produces indubitability.” At least that is what we are pressured into doing.

Once this method does not produce absolute certainty, once we cannot account for the door being unlocked, we find ourselves wondering why we are being forced to check the door in the first place. Yet we do it anyway. When the door is unlocked, those who are epistemically conditioned to find this substantial, like my children, enter into a state of suspended belief, doubt, or skepticism, or opt for a “leap of faith” that demands no evidence, and then sneer at those who do demand evidence as if it is passé.

What my kids should say is this, “Daddy, I don’t care if the door is unlocked. It does not play a sufficient part in your proposition to warrant a disregard of the greater areas of viability with regard to our belief that you are the one who slapped us.” And if I respond, “But you don’t know with perfect, absolute, and infallible certainty,” they should say, “No daddy, probability is sufficient to warrant, yea, demand a belief such as ours and, as a consequence, to reject your alternative.” Well, if they said it like that, I would be scared (who says “yea” anymore?), but you know what I am saying.

Probability is sufficient. We neither need to go into intellectual hibernation and accept our beliefs on blind faith, nor do we need to suspend our belief until all the objections, no matter how improbable, are answered (i.e., we don’t need to check the door).

What I posed to my children was merely a possibility to explain the slap, but possibilities do not create probabilities. We are responsible in this life to act upon the revelation given to us, not to seek absolute indubitability.

We are neither postmodern skeptics nor modern rationalists. We find value in both skepticism, when truly warranted, and rationality, when the probability is conditioned by God to be such.

In other words, our belief in Christ’s resurrection should not be sidetracked simply because someone presents an alternative possibility. Yes, we engage these alternatives, but we don’t give them more credit than they deserve. The old illustration of the “leaky bucket” only finds relevance in an imaginary world where indubitability is required for every rational decision. Those who say that the Christian story borrowed from other religions or that Christ’s body was thrown into a shallow grave have simply presented other possibilities that are often no more sufficient to warrant credibility than my “look, the door is unlocked.” Possibility, yes. Probability, no.

Don’t be shaken by unlikely theories.

Don’t hypocritically require indubitability.

Don’t think that all possibilities are equal.

Don’t opt for a “leap of faith” type of faith.

Just because something is possible does not make it probable.

Finally, and most importantly, I believe that the resurrection of Christ is probable to such a degree that the only rational option is for all people to fall on their faces and worship him.

19 Responses to “The Sufficiency of Probability in Christian Faith”

  1. I have been meaning to write a post on this. Truth is objective. Man’s certainty of a truth is variable. The lack of complete certainty does not equate to a relativising of truth itself.

  2. The obvious question that would arise from the title of your blog is…

    Are you certain that probabality is sufficient?

  3. There is a binding properly basic belief that runs as certian as other properly basic beliefs.

  4. For example (as the classic illustration goes), how certain are you that you were no created ten minutes ago with all your life, past, and beliefs already pre programmed in you by God or something else? This question is set up in such a way to where any evidence you provide fits into the answer on one side or another. So certainty is not the issue. The issue immediately turns to warrant. How warranted are you to believe that this is not the case, that your memories are real? Very warranted. In fact, you are warranted to such a degree that any opt for the possibility would be insane. This is what we call “properly basic belief” and they serve as foundations which demand our allegiance even though modernistic certainty cannot be attained.

    Now, I am not saying that the resurrection of Christ is properly basic, but it does show how the issue needs to get away from certainty and move to warrant. We are children of the enlightenment and as such we often give the modernistic arguments against God more credit than they deserve.

  5. God is the First Principle.

  6. I think your line of reasoning actually argues against belief in the resurrection! A real resurrection is the UN-likeliest of theories. It had never happened before (Enoch and Elijah excepted) and hasn’t happened since, so what rational person would put stock in that? It’s true that all possibilities are not equal…some, like your sneaky guy coming through the door, are immensely unlikely given the circumstances. Resurrection certainly fits that description.

    As believers, we expend much effort in reinforcing our belief in that, “the resurrection of Christ is probable to such a degree that the only rational option is for all people to fall on their face and worship him.” But the very idea of resurrection is irrational to anyone who doesn’t already accept that a supernatural being was involved…

  7. Resurrection is irrational to a naturalist. A naturalist will not accept the supernatural. This realm of apologetics is counterproductive because it fails to address Romans 1:18-20.

  8. It’s not “irrational” in a formal sense. Therefore we need to adjust some terminology. Historians cannot start with blanket assumptions. They have to work according to the admiringly irratice rule of historic inquiry.

    However, philosophical assumptions aside, the resurrection comes out as verified as any ancient historic event.

  9. “Again, Craig and his brethren are just projecting. It is they, and not critical historians, who want to be able to point to sure results. Imagine the creed: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in thy heart that God hath ‘probably’ raised him from the dead, thou shalt ‘most likely’ be saved.” But who is the joke on here?” — Robert M Price

  10. I do agree that the possible is often used in the attempt to defeat the probable or the reasonable, and is frequently given more weight than it deserves.

    However, whether falling on one’s face is the only rational option to the presentation of historical evidence for the resurrection depends on what one means by rational. is rationality confirmationism, falsificationism, proceduralism or something else? I think that it is possible to have a rational belief that Christ is not resurrected that is more rational than the contrary. Whether something is “more” or “most” rational depends in part on the weightings given to matters that are not material (a concept or value cannot be weighed in kilograms), and on what we take to be normative.

    I do not think that becoming a disciple of Jesus is a matter of necessary rationality at all. Of course, it’s not inconsistent with rationality either, and rationality and reasoning can be useful in removing apparent obstacles to faith. We can also use them to form beliefs and intentions.

  11. Some questions to ponder…

    When you present evidence to the unbeliever,

    1.) Who are you putting on trial?
    2.) Who is seated as judge?

  12. I guess what bothers me the most is how you dealt with your children. Shouldn’t we be giving some sort of emotional security that they are safe even though we are aren’t sur ?

    Hebrews chapter of faith should surely be enough.

  13. This was really helpful. You wrote what I was thinking but now I can flesh out my arguments with a great illustration. Do you have a copyright on it? :::kidding::: Thanks Michael. Hope all is well with you and your mom.

  14. Richard Worden Wilson October 19, 2012 at 2:30 am

    Unfortunately, when dealing with supernatural phenomena such as resurrections, there is no way to get to probabilities without compelling presuppositions. People believe they have actually seen things that haven’t happened when hypnotized or mesmerized or just psychologically predisposed to believe. Paranormal phenomena like UFO sitings and abductions and even the common religious experience of the “numinous” convince people of things of which they should be very dubious.
    Probabalistic arguments from evidence are all that material science can provide, but is an inadequate way to approach the experiential verification required to believe in Christ or His resurrection.
    Ultimately you need to consider faith as the certainty of things unseen–and not necessarily probable in the sense for which you argue–because it is the consequence of the prompting of the Holy Spirit. God calls us to and enables faith to believe things that are then subsequently verified in the experience of faith. There probably 8>) isn’t another way to come to faith.

  15. If I were to discuss the history of ancient Greece with a Christian apologist, I suspect that we would have very few disagreements about the most likely explanations for the evidence. When we did disagree, I suspect that we would both acknowledge that the evidence was such that reasonable minds could differ. Moreover, I further suspect that the question of our presuppositions regarding the supernatural would never arise. Only when discussing certain events that occurred in 1st century Palestine would the apologist accuse me of an anti-supernatural bias.

    If I discussed the history of antebellum America with the same apologist, the issue of those presuppositions would never arise; however, it would if I discussed certain events that occurred in upstate New York with a Mormon apologist. Similarly the issue might arise if I discussed certain 7th century events that occurred on the Arabian Peninsula with a Muslim apologist.

    Is anyone else struck by the fact that the question of anti-supernatural presuppositions only arises when apologists discuss the faith based claims of their own religious traditions? In all other historical inquiries, the apologists recognize the validity of methodological naturalism.

  16. “In all other historical inquiries, the apologists recognize the validity of methodological naturalism.”

    Naturalism is a presupposition of which Christians do not have.

    We do not presuppose that truth is only that which comports with nature (what we can see, smell, touch, feel).

    We presuppose that truth is that which comports with the word of God.

  17. Methodological naturalism is not a presupposition. It is a tool of historical inquiry. It is the means by which we draw inferences about the causes of the effects we observe. If we observe a pile of smouldering ashes, we infer that the cause was a fire rather than a rainstorm based on our understanding of the natural process of combustion. If we thought that smouldering ashes appeared randomly or by divine fiat, we could not draw inferences about their cause in any specific instance.

    Methodological naturalism is the tool that most Christians use when investigating any historical question other than their own faith based claims. It does not presuppose that there can be no supernatural truth, but it is incapable of detecting it. Imagine that methodological naturalism is a ruler and the supernatural is temperature. A ruler does not presuppose that temperature does not exist, but it can’t measure it.

  18. Methodological naturalism is a tool of enquiry because it is what we observe happening nearly all the time. Occasionally in history events seem to require the supernatural to be at least mentioned in order to make sense of the story. The story of Joan of Arc is one.

    From her 12th birthday onwards she continually sees visions of angels and saints who tell her things. Other people report seeing these visions with her on occasions. Later the visions tell her to go visit Charles her prince and claimant to the throne and assure him god was with him. This she did as a young teenager. When she met with him she told him details of a private prayer he had said which greatly amazed and encouraged him. She was then placed in informal charge of his army and a series of amazing victories were won leading to Charles eventual coronation in Rheims.

    Are the supernatural claims actually true? Did they happen? Maybe, and they are a requirement if you are going to understand her story. They have explanatory power. I think it is the same with Jesus and his disciples. The resurrection story is the same sort of thing. It has explanatory power and is at least what his followers were convinced of and it can be reported as history without requiring anyone to believe it or invalidating the principle of methodological naturalism.

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