Proton Decay and the Resurrection of Jesus

-- Rare Events

In #religion

In the Unbelievable podcast episode Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Jonathan McLatchie vs Jonathan Pearce I was struck by several claims and points, especially made by Jonathan McLatchie. I went back and listened to two other debates with him, one with Matt Dillahunty and one with myself and found some of the points Pearce made against McLatchie were things that both I and Matt had brought up -- mostly about McLatchie's apparent over-fondness for stories over real evidence.

Proton Decay and Rare Events

McLatchie says that the frequency with which we experience something is not always a good guide to its probability. Although I'd suggest that it is usually a very good guide, let's look at his example.

McLatchie says proton decay has not been observed, but is predicted by most (if not all) grand unified theories of particle physics so frequency is not a good guide for prior probability. He comments that the difference between a rare event that has a low prior vs one with a high prior, like that for proton decay, is that proton decay has a theoretical underpinning.

it's not that this is just a random guess even though there's no precedent

In the same way, he feels, the resurrection has no precedent but also has a theoretical underpinning.

[...] frequency isn't the most helpful metric for assessing the prior probability you also want to look for whether there's a theoretical underpinning for this hypothesis and likewise with the case for christianity the case for the resurrection in particular i think that you can make a similar case from a theoretical underpinning a background information that stands independently of the extent to which there is precedence in our experience of the miraculous [...]

The comparison is laughable to me, given the differences in the "theoretical underpinning" of each, but let's see how the comparison plays out. The Standard Model predicts that proton decay will not happen -- that it violates a conservation law -- however many models that build off of the Standard Model do include proton decay. Given the state of affairs, I'm not sure if scientists put a large prior on proton decay anyway, but let's grant that -- say, we are reasonably confident that proton decay will occur. What theoretical underpinning would we have to give us this confidence?

There are many times that science has predicted rare and unprecedented events or effects.

  • the motion of the Earth through the Ether (e.g. Michaelson-Morely experiment)
  • the bending of star light by a massive object (e.g. Einsteins GR prediction)
  • civilizations on Mars (e.g. Lowell's canals)
  • the existence of the Higgs Boson (1967 work by many scientists, including one of my former instructors, Gerry Guralnik)
  • proton decay (predicted by many Grand Unified theories)

Note that several of these were not confirmed, yet at the time there were good reasons to think they were true. Whenever science has predicted a rare, unprecedented event there have been common patterns.

  1. the novel theory is consistent with every other confirmed prediction from the other theories. For example General Relativity describes gravity, predicts novel phenomena, but can be shown in certain limits to be consistent with Newton's Law of Gravity.
  2. the novel theory predicts specific limits on the novel phenomena. For example, General Relativity predicts the exact angle that starlight will bend passing by the known mass of the Sun, and specifically how accurately the measurements need to be made.
  3. ones confidence in a novel theory's prediction, before the prediction is confirmed, comes down to how much the other predictions of the novel theory have been confirmed -- especially if the theory has made several striking confirmed predictions. For example, scientists were confident in the existence of gravity waves for a long time before they were observed, because General Relativity had passed every test to an accuracy as good as we could measure, and many of those tests were profoundly unintuitive and unexpected.

We can be confident in the prediction of proton decay in as much as those theories that predict it have been confirmed to a great degree on other terms. For example, "the standard model predicts the electron magnetic moment to an astonishing accuracy of one part in a trillion." The Standard Model is also consistent with every other theory within its domain, and doesn't violate any outside of its domain (the role of gravity, for example, is outside the Standard Model). Grand unified theories all have to be as accurate as the Standard Model to be considered. It is these factors that make us confident in the prediction of novel phenomena.

How does the "theoretical underpinning" of the God-theory for the Resurrection stack up? The things that McLatchie brings up are

  • Keener's book of Miracles
  • there is merit to Lewis trilemma (i.e. Liar, Lunatic, Lord)
  • multi-sensory experiences, with groups, around the Resurrection
  • prophecy such as Christianity becoming a global religion, predicted in the Old Testament
  • Jesus executed on/around passover, predicted in the Old Testament

The episode dealt with these topics pretty well, and I've written a bit about some of them, including miracles, healings, and my conversation with Jonathan McLatchie. But simply compare the theories around proton decay and those of the Resurrection.

  • one is consistent with every other confirmed prediction from the other theories -- the other isn't.
  • one predicts specific limits on the novel phenomena, including time frames and what specific steps we'd need to confirm it -- the other doesn't.
  • one has a pile of other novel specific, quantitative predictions that have since been confirmed -- the other doesn't.

So I want to ask Jonathan McLatchie a few questions:

  1. Can you make a prediction of when miraculous healing, or any other miracles, will happen -- or is it always post-hoc?
  2. Can you make any description of a measurement that could be done, no matter how impractical, for directly confirming any of the predictions from the God-theory?
  3. You mentioned a case of a healing of Irene McDonald with multiple sclerosis, but I can't find the medical details (i.e. the actual doctor's reports, the detailed timeline, etc...). Same with the case of Barbara Schnyder. Can you provide those? (note -- some of your other medical miracle claims were suspect after I researched them)
  4. How did you determine that these people were healed by prayer and also by God? You can't answer "because they prayed and she was healed after" (post-hoc fallacy) and you can't answer "because they prayed to the Christian God", because some other God may have answered, or some other thing. You have to, in your explanation, be able to distinguish from the prayers that haven't worked, the cases where healing happened without prayer or with prayer to another God. Without this, you can't make a reasonable claim that God-did-it.