McCullagh’s Arguments to the Best Explanation

Resurrection We are rationally justified, according to C. Behan McCullagh, to believe a given statement (the hypothesis) is true about a given event (observable data) if that statement meets the following conditions:

(1)The statement, together with other statements already held to be true, must imply yet other statements describing present, observable data. (We will henceforth call the first statement ‘the hypothesis’, and the statements describing observable data, ‘observation statements’.)

(2)The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory scope than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must imply a greater variety of observation statements.

(3)The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory power than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must make the observation statements it implies more probable than any other.

(4)The hypothesis must be more plausible than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must be implied to some degree by a greater variety of accepted truths than any other, and be implied more strongly than any other; and its probable negation must be implied by fewer beliefs, and implied less strongly than any other.

(5)The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must include fewer new suppositions about the past which are not already implied to some extent by existing beliefs.

(6)It must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, when conjoined with accepted truths it must imply fewer observation statements and other statements which are believed to be false.

(7)It must exceed other incompatible hypotheses about the same subject by so much, in characteristics 2 to 6, that there is little chance of an incompatible hypothesis, after further investigation, soon exceeding it in these respects. [1]( McCullagh 1984: 19 emp. original)

“[I]f the scope and strength of an explanation are very great,” concluded McCullagh, “so that it explains a large number and variety of facts, many more than any competing explanation, then it is likely to be true.” (ibid, 26)

McCullagh & Resurrection of Jesus

Though the Christian hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead has a greater explanatory scope and power than its rivals given the observable historical data, McCullagh deemed resurrection hypothesis as less plausible and more ad hoc than its rivals(ibid 21). He argued that “The hypothesis that God exists and cared about Jesus is of questionable plausibility; the hypothesis that he wanted to raise Jesus from the dead and reveal him to the disciples and others is almost entirely ad hoc” (McCullagh 2012: 46).

Thus, though he believes in resurrection of Jesus, McCullagh finds it difficult to decide on the evidence whether it should be accepted or rejected as a best explanation.

Before I address the probability of resurrection of Jesus hypothesis relative to the background knowledge and specific data Pr(R/ B&D) and whether it is the best explanation of the data in a pool of competing rival hypotheses, it is important to bring up the main question that I attempt to answer:  Can a Christian, with love, gentleness and respect, present a persuasive historical case to show that it is rationally justified to believe that Jesus rose again from the dead?

My inquiry is less ambitious. It seeks not to convince non-Christians that Jesus rose again leaving an empty tomb but to show that Christians’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection is rationally acceptable. If my task were of convincing non-Christians then McCullagh’s concerns would have had to be addressed. But since the hypothesis that God exists and care about Jesus is neither of questionable plausibility nor is it ad hoc to Christians then I will proceed with the sub-questions I set to answer (see Rationality of The Resurrection of Jesus).

McCullagh, C. Behan (1984) Justifying Historical Descriptions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

__________________________ (2012) ‘The Resurrection of Jesus: Explanation or Interpretation?’ Southeastern Theological Review Vol.3 No. 1: 41-53


[1] McCullagh is aware of other conditions as simplicity and greater degree of falsifiability than any other, but find them unnnecessary (20)

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15 thoughts on “McCullagh’s Arguments to the Best Explanation

  1. Question by john zande(October 9, 2013 at 22:26)
    Out of interest, what matrix do you use to determine Dionysus did not die and rise from the dead?

    There are various accounts of Dionysus. The versions that viewed him as patron of reincarnation Dionysus “dies” as the vines every winter and “rise”, as vines, every spring. So now Dionysus is dying as we approach winter and he will rise again in spring.

    I put “dies” in quotation mark because if one thing all students take from their classes on Olympian gods is that they are born but cannot die. Egyptians gods, Nordics gods, Irains-Indo gods dies but not Greek gods. So a claim that Dionysus dead and rise from the dead is simply absurd.

    Read the sources yourself john: Homer (Iliad & Odyssey); Hesiod; Hesiod; Homeric Hymns; Homerica; Apollodorus; Pausanias; Strabo; Herodotus; Orphic Hymns, Quintus Smyrnaeus; Callimachus; Parthenius; Aelian; Ovid (Metamorphoses); Hyginus (Fabulae & Astronomica); Apuleius; Aesop (n/a)[You can read them here: Theoi Project]

    • Dionysus was only part god so your dismissal isn’t valid. Regardless, let’s try asking again regarding Osiris. Tell me, what matrix do you use to dismiss this resurrection story?

      I ask because i’m interested., Surely you have a foolproof method or else you wouldn’t be so sure all these other resurrected deities are little more than inventive fable, whereas your story is factual.

      Also, Prayson, why don’t ask me to do a guest post?

      • O John! Has Zeitgeist zombie eaten your brain? There is no source that even suggested Dionysus died. Instead of falling again on passing false information, as Jesus crucified in Rome, read main sources John. The zombie of Osiris resurrection is flatly false. I addressed the most common gods myth claims here: https://withalliamgod.wordpress.com/2011/05/28/busting-the-dying-and-rising-gods-myths/

        There are many accounts. One of it unfolds as follows: After being tricked by his brother Set (who locked him in a coffin-like-cloth), killed him by disembodiment into 12 pieces and thrown him into river Nile, it is true that Isis reembodied all pieces but Osiris’ penis and revived him with magic spell to life to have sexual intercourse that led to Horus. Osiris was brought to life not of into the land of the living(were we are), but the Underworld. He was not allowed and could not come to the land of the living. Is this resurrection? Well, not as Jews understand it because resurrection is being brought back to life in the world of the living with immortal body.

        You might not want to listen to me because I am theist, so I will direct you to atheists and agnostics who have refuted these parallelism and ask fellow atheists not to do so because it gives atheism a bad name: http://conspiracies.skepticproject.com/articles/zeitgeist/part-one/

        • Of course i’ll listen to you. I don’t discriminate. So i’m to understand you dismiss these dying/rising deities on a technicality in the story? Interesting. In that case, does Paul’s technicality falsify the gospels? He never says Jesus was physically resurrected. As John Shelby Spong said: “We must keep in mind that Paul knew nothing of an event called the ascension that was separate or different from Jesus’ resurrection. Paul’s writings contain no hint of the two-stage process that would develop later, where resurrection brought Jesus from the grave back to life and ascension then took Jesus from earth to heaven. Paul’s proclamation was that God had raised Jesus into God’s very life. That was Easter for Paul. For Paul there were no empty tombs, no disappearance from the grave of the physical body, no physical resurrection, no physical appearances of a Christ who would eat fish, offer his wounds for inspection, or rise physically into the sky after an appropriate length of time. None of these ideas can be found in reading Paul. For Paul the body of Jesus who died was perishable, weak, physical. The Jesus who was raised was clothed by the raising God with a body fit for God’s kingdom. It was imperishable, glorified, and spiritual. (Resurrection: Myth or Reality, p. 241) .]

          Also, what about the problem of there being no resurrection in the oldest synoptic work, Mark? As Mark was copied by Matthew and Luke wouldn’t that falsify their resurrection story?

          It also raises the question: why did 4th Century Christians see it necessary to secretly add a new ending to Mark?

          Back to that other matter: why haven’t you asked me to do a guest post?

        • Also, wouldn’t the contradictions in the postmortem events falsify the resurrection story?

          Matthew reports that the women were instructed to tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee (first by an angel and then immediately after by Jesus himself), and then reports the disciples heading to Galilee and meeting Jesus on a mountain where he commissions them to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The End.

          Mark has the women running away from the the empty tomb and reporting it to no one. The End.

          Luke tells us that Jesus met the disciples in Jerusalem, led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, lifted up his hands and blessed them, “and while he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” The End.

          John informs us that Jesus first meets the disciples behind locked doors in Jerusalem and then later on standing near the shore of the Sea of Galilee (where they apparently failed to recognize him once again). They have brunch. The End.

        • Sorry, i should just add, i’m not asking for a guest post position, i was merely wondering why you never asked me as you were asking other atheists.

        • If you have presented John Shelby Spong correctly, then I have to say Spong fail to understand Paul’s terms “spirit”( swma pneumatikon.) For Paul swma pneumatikon spiritual-dominated body is contrary to swma yucikon flesh-dominted body. Spong is not correct because if he was careful he would have noticed that Paul used similar language in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15:

          “The anthropos psychikos(natural man) does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The pneumatikos(spiritual man ) judges all things but is himself to be judged by no one.”

          Paul does not use spirit as Spong, if you have presented Spong correctly that is, suggested he does. Spiritual body does not mean a body made of spirit but a body that unlike that goes after fallen things(flesh) goes after godly things (spirit).

          Your second inquires is irrelevant because I did not base my case on the gospel accounts but on what Scholars on this field, mostly atheists, agnostics and skeptics, grant as known facts about Jesus of Nazareth.

          Last inquires. I invited Robert to guest blog because he is a brilliant thinker and his blog shows that he is a true and genuine person who though an atheist is open for respectable and gentle dialogues. Like me he is open to listen and dialogue with respect. He won my trust, and respect in our exchange in comments. He came on my defense when an atheist commenter ridicule me in his blog’s comment and showed that he is a thinker of a first class order.

  2. You can do the shuck and jive all you want but I’ll not enter into a debate about the who wrote what, and when, and of why and how we have the Bible, too tedious and time consuming. Believe me, it isn’t because I think you will eventually inject infantile hateful words and name calling when you get frustrated with me.

    You seem to have some facts though, so I’ll share some too.

    The Bible was written by around forty different people from different backgrounds, from kings, prophets, and writers to fishermen, shepherds, and prisoners.

    The Bible was written during a period of 1,600 years. That’s about forty generations.

    The Bible is the most sold and most translated book in the world. The Bible, or parts of it, is available in 2,508 different languages.

    The Bible was printed in 1454 A.D. by Johannes Gutenberg (pictured above) who invented the “type mold” for the printing press. It was the first book ever printed.

    The entire New Testament as we know it today, was canonized before the year 375 A.D. The Old Testament had previously been canonized long before the advent of Christ.

    The Bible was written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek.

    Almost all biblical scholars agree that the New Testament documents were all written before the close of the First Century. If Jesus was crucified in 30 A.D., then that means that the entire New Testament was completed within 70 years.

    There are presently 5,686 Greek manuscripts in existence today for the New Testament. If we were to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient writings, the next highest is 643 copies of Homer(Iliad).

    In addition to the Greek copies there are over 19,000 copies in the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages. The total supporting New Testament manuscript base is over 24,000.

    The Dead Sea Scrolls which were discovered in Qumran contain some of the oldest fragments and manuscripts of the Old Testament and are called the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.

    The Bible today is the best-selling book ever and 50 bibles are sold every minute.

    • Comparing Christ with one of the many Greek mythological gods won’t cut it. Many saw Christ crucified, dead, and buried, then later alive after the Resurrection.

      Line any of the so-called “life-death-rebirth deities” up against your Christ and they all fail miserably.

      en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-death-rebirth_deity

      Christianity was founded in the early 1st century AD, with the teaching, miracles, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Today it is the largest religion in the world, with around 2 billion followers.

      Besides death and taxes there is one thing you can count on; there will always be Christians.

      • Who saw it? Have you any testimonies? No.

        Yes, Roy, Dionysus does cut it. A man-god who died and was resurrected. So, the question stands: what matrix do you use to reject this claim?

        Surely you have a method of knowing, you sound very confident, so i’d like to hear it. What matrix do you use to reject the claim of Dionysus?

        • Who saw it? Really?

          The apostles knew, lived, and worked with Christ daily. If Christ were a fake, no matter what the apostles might have previously preached or written, it is improbable that even one of them would have died for the sake of a joke or a lie. How rational is it that all of them would endure torture, to the death, without even one wavering from their singular belief that Christ was God, and that he appeared to them after his crucifixion?

          The fact that they maintained perfect unanimity on Jesus’ resurrection under torture, separately and over many years, is inconceivable unless they were each absolutely convinced of Christ’s claim to be the almighty God of the universe. The possibility that the apostles honestly mistook him to be God and only thought he appeared to them would be greatest magic trick of all time.

          The Gospels state that the early witnesses to the Empty Tomb and the Risen Christ were women, whose testimony was not regarded as credible in the patriarchal Judaism of that period. If the resurrection stories were invented, one would not expect this: a hoax or conspiracy would have used men as these early witnesses. An honest account, on the other hand, would have described what was true, however inconvenient it was.

          Not getting personal, the above are just two of many reasons I am very confident.

          So, Dionysus cuts it? Do the mythological gods from the old poems and stories have an impact on anyone’s live today?

          I don’t think “matrix” is used properly, as it’s defined. Perhaps you mean to ask, “What criterion do you use to reject the claim of Dionysus, and accept the claim of Jesus?”, since criterion means a standard on which a judgment or decision may be based.

          • The synoptic gospels are not testimonies, Roy, and you know that. We don’t even know who wrote them. They’re not even second hand accounts. They were written generations after the apostles died. The oldest synoptic work, Mark, didn’t even originally contain the resurrection… that part was secretly added by unknown Christian editors.

            Tell me, Roy, why do you think 4th Century Christians saw it necessary to molest the oldest synoptic work and secretly add a new ending?

          • You can do the shuck and jive all you want but I’ll not enter into a debate about the who wrote what, and when, and of why and how we have the Bible, too tedious and time consuming. Believe me, it isn’t because I think you will eventually inject infantile hateful words and name calling when you get frustrated with me.

            You seem to have some facts though, so I’ll share some too.

            The Bible was written by around forty different people from different backgrounds, from kings, prophets, and writers to fishermen, shepherds, and prisoners.

            The Bible was written during a period of 1,600 years. That’s about forty generations.

            The Bible is the most sold and most translated book in the world. The Bible, or parts of it, is available in 2,508 different languages.

            The Bible was printed in 1454 A.D. by Johannes Gutenberg (pictured above) who invented the “type mold” for the printing press. It was the first book ever printed.

            The entire New Testament as we know it today, was canonized before the year 375 A.D. The Old Testament had previously been canonized long before the advent of Christ.

            The Bible was written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek.

            Almost all biblical scholars agree that the New Testament documents were all written before the close of the First Century. If Jesus was crucified in 30 A.D., then that means that the entire New Testament was completed within 70 years.

            There are presently 5,686 Greek manuscripts in existence today for the New Testament. If we were to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient writings, the next highest is 643 copies of Homer(Iliad).

            In addition to the Greek copies there are over 19,000 copies in the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages. The total supporting New Testament manuscript base is over 24,000.

            The Dead Sea Scrolls which were discovered in Qumran contain some of the oldest fragments and manuscripts of the Old Testament and are called the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.

            The Bible today is the best-selling book ever and 50 bibles are sold every minute.

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