In summary, there are four facts agreed upon by the majority of scholars who have written on these subjects which any adequate historical hypothesis must account for: Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection.
Now the question is: what is the best explanation of these four facts? Most sholars probably remain agnostic about this question. But the Christian can maintain that the hypothesis that best explains these facts is “God raised Jesus from the dead.”
We’re amazingly prone to 'see' things that are not really there. One of my favourite examples involves a strange object seen over the building site of a new U.S. nuclear plant back in 1967. Police arrived. One officer confirmed that 'It was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant. Must have been there nearly two hours.' The County magistrate said he saw 'a rectangular object about the size of a football field'. There was even a rogue radar blip reported by air traffic control!What on earth could this amazing object be?
We know, pretty much for sure, that what was seen by those police officers and the magistrate was the planet Venus. Journalists arrived on the scene, were shown the object, and chased it in their car. They found they couldn’t approach it. Finally, they looked at it through a long lens and saw it was Venus. That radar blip was just a coincidence.
What does this show? Every year there are countless amazing reports of religious miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and so on. In most cases, it’s easy to come up with plausible, mundane explanations for them. But not all. Some remain deeply baffling.
So, given this hard core of 'unexplained cases', should we believe in such things, then?
No. For, as my UFO story illustrates, we know that some very hard-to-explain reports of miracles, flying saucers, and so on will likely show up anyway, whether or not there’s any truth to such claims. That 1967 case could easily have been such a baffling case if the journalists had not investigated and found the truth. It could easily have gone down in the annals of UFOlogy as one of the great 'unexplained' cases. UFO enthusiasts would have said: 'That is hardly likely to be an hallucination, or a lie, or just a normal aircraft, surely? The best explanation is that there really was an extraordinary object in the sky,''
So when people say:
'The best available explanation of these amazing reports is that witnesses really did see an alien spacecraft (or a resurrection, or a miracle, or an angel, etc.) - for it's just implausible that they could have all hallucinated, or been tricked by an illusion (what explains that radar blip?!), are lying (they're police officers and a magistrate - and independent witnesses!) etc.',
remember: such cases are going to crop up every now and then anyway even if there aren't any alien spaceships visiting us, are no resurrections, etc. But then such reports are not evidence for the existence of such alien craft. Our mere inability to come up with a plausible explanation of such reports shouldn't lead us to conclude that there probably was an alien spacecraft, a resurrection, or whatever.
I have had some helpful comments on this from Calum Miller, Secular Outpost (on twitter) (i.e. Jeffrey Jay Lowder), and subsequently feel the need to clarify a few things.
1. the above piece is not intend to show there could never be evidence good enough to believe the woo thing (miracle or whatever) happened - there could.
2. Everything I say above can be expressed in Bayesian terms, if you prefer to think in a Bayesian way. In effect, I am focusing on what numbers get put into the Theorem.
3. I focus on the probability of mundane explanations being correct, not on the prior probability of the exotic explanation being correct, which is of course also important (base rate fallacy) - though I do (deliberately) mention the prior probability in my gremlin example where I point out the prior probability probability of gremlins existing is very low (as there's little evidence for their existence and a great deal against).
4. My point here is that we seem systematically prone to giving a lower probability to mundane explanations than we should. I myself feel the tug of this whenever I am presented with best explanation arguments by 9/11 truthers, fairy-ists, miracle claimers, etc., - especially when the various mundane explanations of offer are listed and considered individually. We can easily end up supposing the prob of some such mundane explanation being correct is exceptionally low when it is not nearly as low as we suppose. I am suggesting that this is something like a cognitive bias that we should be on our guard against. I am suggesting that the attractiveness of many woo beliefs is due not just to the fact that we ignore the low prior probability of gremlins existing, miracles occurring, etc. (though we do) but also because we tend systematically to underestimate the prob of some mundane explanation being correct. One way of dealing with this bias is to expose oneself to a lot of different kinds of examples - that's exactly what I try to do here.