God and Pseudomathematics

In the next day or two I will post a detailed account of my experiences at the Gathering for Gardner, which I can honestly say is one of the most enjoyable math conferences I have ever attended. In the meantime, you might enjoy this essay by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross. Polster is a mathematician at Monash University in Australia, and I had the pleasure of meeting him at the conference. His column has nuggets like this:

There may not be much left to argue, but argument continues regardless. For instance, there is the famous Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne. He fell in love with probabilities, and in 2003 he proved that it is 97% probable that Jesus rose from the grave. Swinburne’s work was respectfully reported around the globe.

We cannot be so respectful. We shouldn’t have to say it, but Swinburne’s work is pseudomathematical nonsense. His arithmetic of probabilities is fine, but the base probabilities that he worked with were nothing beyond wild guesses.

Go read the whole thing, and not just because the authors refer to an essay of mine. Be sure to stick around for the brainteaser at the end.


  1. #1 Ivan
    March 31, 2010

    I was kinda disappointed by the brainteaser.

    My answer is: Richard Swinburne’s mathematics is ridiculous, and God (assuming its existence) only thinks true thoughts; thus God necessarily thinks Richard Swinburne’s mathematics is ridiculous.

  2. #2 Ivan
    March 31, 2010

    [Of course, my answer is merely a corollary of the more general observation that God always agrees with whoever is making any given argument.]

  3. #3 AL
    March 31, 2010

    97% probable that Jesus rose from the grave? Why, that’s 3% blasphemy!

  4. #4 Owlmirror
    April 1, 2010

    Note that the anecdote about Diderot and Euler which they included is almost certainly false.


  5. #5 Birger Johansson
    April 1, 2010

    ” For instance, there is the famous Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne. He fell in love with probabilities, and in 2003 he proved that it is 97% probable that Jesus rose from the grave. ”
    -A much more enjoyable read is Stanislaw Lem’s “The Investigation”, where a detective from Scotland Yard and a statistics mathematician investigate a number of strange cases where corpses have disappeared from mourges and apparently been resurrected.
    The book is free from magic or paranormal events, it is simply a good novel where the scientific method is an important part of the plot.

  6. #6 James A. Brown
    April 1, 2010

    Mr. Rosenhouse, I enjoyed your essay Polster and Ross referenced. Most of the math was above me, but I was a bit put off by the numerous typos.

  7. #7 Doazic
    April 1, 2010

    I wonder what odds he would calculate for Harry Potter killing Voldemort.

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 1, 2010

    Birger –

    Thanks for the recommendation. Of course, the recent Sherlock Holmes movie also featured a story of apparent resurrection.

    James –

    Sorry about the typos. The version posted at my website was transcribed from the published version, since I did not have an electronic copy of the article when I made my web page. Guess I’ll have to do some revisions!

  9. #9 Blaine
    April 5, 2010

    Apply Bayes’ formula, QED. The rest I’ll leave as a homework assignment. 🙂

    More importantly, theoretical physicists think god is a mathematician. However, experimental physicists think he was not a very good one.

  10. #10 Graeme Bird
    April 6, 2010

    Do any credentialed pro-evolutionist types come out fervently against the Big Bang? You would think they would. Their own theory and the small amount of time that the big bang leaves us, being at odds with eachother.

  11. #11 eric
    April 6, 2010

    One doesn’t even have to know Swinburne’s base probabilities or his justification of them to know that his math is hinky. He gives no error estimate for his final value. Which means one of two things: he either didn’t assign error to his base probabilities, or he did and then dropped them from the math. If the first, he doesn’t understand what he’s doing. If the second, he doesn’t understand some fairly basic statistics.

  12. #12 Rules For
    April 8, 2010

    14 billion years is a “small amount of time”?

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