The Guardian 10 August, 2005
Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Probably foolish speculation
Did you see that some Oxford professor claims there is "a probability of 97 per cent" that Jesus rose from the dead? A curiously precise figure, wouldn't you agree?
Of course, the professor in question — Professor Richard Swinburne — is not a scientist but, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, "a leading philosopher of religion".
In this day and age, after a couple of hundred years of scientific development, it is a bit of a worry that a professor of anything at a university of Oxford's calibre could say something so daft.
Nor is it helped by the mishmash of maths and "logic" he uses to try to prove his contention. At times they smack more of Monty Python than of academia.
Professor Swinburne begins by asking the pertinent question "Whether there's reason to suppose there is a God". Swinburne thinks the answer is "yes".
Materialists, on the other hand, believe that reason must lead you to answer in the negative. Those materialists include the Marxist-Leninists, whose political beliefs are grounded in the philosophical concepts of dialectical and historical materialism.
The idea of a god — or indeed a whole hierarchy of gods — was devised by humanity when it was very mystified by the apparently capricious workings of the natural world. But today, many of the mystifying questions about natural processes and phenomena that were the province of a god or gods have been explained, thanks to the work of scientists and the rapid advances made in science, technology and communications.
Even when some phenomenon is not yet fully understood, we can still say with confidence that it could be understood in due course. We can, with the materialist philosophers, say that "not everything is known as yet, but all things are knowable".
However, it does seem to be basic to Professor Swinburne's position that all the incidents of Jesus' life and death (both real and reputed, including the resurrection and all the other miracles that embellish the story) be accepted as having actually happened.
For Swinburne's thesis appears to be that if the incidents of Jesus' life as told in the Bible did not happen that way, then the Bible would not be written the way it is! It follows that it must be true.
He bases this odd notion not on common sense nor apparently on any appreciation of the early gospel writers' desire to convince and impress a credulous audience. No, he bases it — he says — on mathematics.
Specifically on what he calls "probability calculus". He maintains that there was a one-in-ten probability that the gospels would report the life and resurrection of Jesus the way that they did.
However, he says, the chance of all the factors of his life and death coming together, if the resurrection was not true, was only one in 1000. Ergo, the Bible's account is most probably the true one.
This form of mathematical modeling is popular in some academic circles, but it does seem — certainly in this case — to be founded on a pretty thin premise.
Professor Swinburne actually gives the odds that god exists as one in two — either god does, or god doesn't. Similarly, it is one in two that god became incarnate (Jesus as the son of god).
That sort of logic could equally well be used to prove that god is purple (either he is or he isn't) and that he is only two feet tall (again, either he is or he isn't)!
A child could tell him that all sorts of things will influence whether something is "probable". It is hardly a choice between whether It "is" or "isn't" possible.
Professor Swinburne gave a public lecture at the Australian Catholic University during his recent visit, and has written a whole book based on his "mathematical" proof: The Resurrection of God Incarnate (published by Oxford University Press, of course — he is a don there, after all).
The Sydney Morning Herald sought the opinion of Colin Sutherland, Professor of Mathematics at the University of NSW, as to whether maths could prove the resurrection of Jesus.
A naturally cautious Professor Sutherland said he suspected the resurrection was something mathematics could not prove.
"In general, mathematics is able to tell you that if one thing is true, that something else is true. But you have to make your assumptions very clear", he said.
"The conclusions you reach in this kind of discussion often simply reflect the assumptions that you put in at the beginning."