25 July 2005

Swinburne’s wager

Once, while watching a TV series about the Bible called Testament, the presenter talked about the efforts to find archaeological evidence for the exodus Moses led from Egypt. The evidence was so paltry that efforts to do so, he said, reduced the wonderful, epic story of the Exodus “to a few Hebrews mucking about in the desert.” I sort of got the same sense of diminution when I read this article, in which a mathematician argued that Christ’s resurrection could be proven mathematically.

To me, the first part of the argument is old and unconvincing. There’s an old philosophical argument called Pascal's wager. The argument is thus: “There either is a God or there is not. If there is, and you break His laws, you will suffer for all eternity in Hell. If there isn’t and you follow His laws, nothing ill will befall you. So you’d better convert.” When I first heard Pascal’s wager as an undergraduate, I argued then that it treats the existence of God like two two heads of a coin, ignoring that there many be many other reasons to believe in or doubt the existence of God. And the first point of Swinburne’s argument is to set a probability of God’s existence as being 50-50: there is, or there isn’t.

Robert Sawyer actually has written a book about this called Calculating God (which is definitely on my “to read” list), so I sent him a link to the article. He responded with alacrity. Hi analysis was much the same as mine, writing that an asteroid might hit the Earth tomorrow or it might not, “but the odds of it happening are billions to one against, not fifty-fifty.”

The strength of faith can be an awesome thing. And it always seems to me to be lessened by mucking around with numbers to support it.

No comments: