Philosopher Richard Swinburne has calculated the probability of Jesus' resurrection at "a whopping 97 percent," The New York Times reported in May. The number sounds odd-more like a meteorologist's prediction of thunderstorms or an actuary's calculation of a cancer rate than a philosopher's reflections on the resurrection. Swinburne, who teaches at Oxford University, presented his work at a Yale University conference in honor of recently retired Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.

For some decades now, Swinburne has been arguing that while the existence of God is improbable, the nonexistence of God is far more improbable. And he has been applying the mathematical tools of probability to quantify his argument. At the Yale conference, Swinburne applied Bayes's Theorem, a complicated formula developed by an 18th-century English clergyman. After Thomas Bayes died, a friend discovered his theorem among his papers and sent it to the Royal Society of London. This year, Oxford University Press has republished Bayes's paper in a volume of technical essays introduced and edited by Swinburne.

Swinburne's various arguments have breathed new life into the case for God's existence-an idea that better explains life as we know it than any other system of thought, whether materialism or humanism. He has presented his case in technical works (such as his 1979 book The Existence of God). But more recently, he produced an approachable book (Is There a God? 1996) as a challenge to Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker) and Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time), the disbelieving champions of the bestseller lists.

Arguments such as Swinburne's contribute to the plausibility of belief in the supernatural, in miracles, and in God. They don't ...

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July 8, 2002

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