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Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

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Have you ever heard the claim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?” Or perhaps you’ve made the argument yourself or are parroting the rhetoric that you’ve heard on internet discussion boards where atheists frequent. Or maybe you’ve felt something amiss when confronted by the argument but couldn’t quite put your finger on it. Whatever the case may be, it is an interesting topic to dissect and does have some practical applications as well. At the outset, I want to make one thing clear – this rebuttal to the evidence for God, or the existence of God, or religion, or specifically to Christianity, misses the mark.

It’s difficult to chart the course and understand the source of this argument, but one of the chief proponents of some of the ideas that have lead inextricably to this notion that ‘extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence’ has been David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, and skeptic. Some of Hume’s positions included the idea that we can only know what we experience individually. And this notion was also one of the catalysts for his rejection of the existence of the self.

In the 20th century, the phrase got new wind, popularized by Carl Sagan, a well-known astronomer who argued that the evidence for God would have to be “extraordinary” for us to take it seriously. But the more modern form of this argument is not born from reasoned inquiry but the radical skepticism in the tradition of Hume. It has been offered as an answer to testimony to miraculous events and has taken on this maxim as a way to disregard historical evidence that would warrant the belief of miraculous events, chief among these the claims made by the New Testament writers about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But is this requirement of “extraordinary evidence” a sound expectation based on good reasoning, or is it a superficially rhetorical maxim that acts only as a smokescreen for radical skepticism?

Is the moniker ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ based on a legitimate epistemic rule?

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Within epistemology, we are not merely concerned with knowledge itself, but also how we can know what we know. Philosophers typically define knowledge as “justified true belief.” As such, one of the primary concerns within epistemology is the justification itself. To this end, epistemic rules are employed to determine whether or not grounds for a variety of claims or propositions are adequate or inadequate. It is not a surprise then to see such epistemic rules as observational relevance, inductive and deductive rules that help clarify the rational means by which a thinker may form justified beliefs.

With this in view, what sort of rule would one employ in conjunction with the claim that “extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary evidence?” After all, such an epistemic claim requires the use of some sort of epistemic rule or principle that we can use to test the maxim itself and employ it in other instances as well based on what we understand to mean by “extraordinary.” Oddly enough, the demand for “extraordinary evidence” is not accompanied by any such rule so that we may test this rhetorical maxim. It is simply a blunt assertion. In the absence of any epistemic rule, we must assess the claim simply on its own merits by defining and examining the parts composing the claim.

What is an “extraordinary event?”

What does one mean exactly by “extraordinary events?” What exactly is an “extraordinary event?” Is it (a) an event that happens infrequently, (b) an event that is highly improbable or (c) an event that is outside the bounds of a natural process or the productive power of nature, in other words, more in line with a miracle? If by “extraordinary event” one means (a) infrequency of the event in question, there need not be a precedent of established frequency to trust a particular testimony. Most events in human history happen only once. We typically do not require that events repeat and generate a precedence for us to have confidence in their historicity. The Declaration of Independence was signed only once. No one doubts that it happened on the basis that there was no precedence of prior declarations. Each event or claim is generally examined on its own merits, and not by some precedence. If one takes “extraordinary” to mean improbable, a similar rejoinder applies; many things in history are a combination of unlikely events, the final product of those improbabilities resulting in even more of an improbable event outcome. These converging improbabilities do not necessarily make events extraordinary beyond the usual scope of evidence. For example, what are the chances that a man who (1) ran the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, and (2) was mere feet away from the explosion that injured so many, would (3) be from Texas, and would (4) fly back home to Texas before a particular time, and (5) survive another explosion on April 17, 2013, this time at a fertilizer factory, (6) 1,875 miles away? The odds are indeed minuscule. But it happened (http://kikn.com/man-miraculously-survives-boston-and-texas-explosions/). It may be improbable, but this improbability does not require “extraordinary evidence?” Simple testimony and some brief checking of facts are enough to establish that the events happened.

What are miracles

Typically, those who bring up this objection, when referring to “extraordinary claims” are referring to miracles, in other words, things that are perceived to be outside the bounds of the natural processes that govern the material world. In this, the contention of theists would be that that specific definition or understanding of miracles may be a bit skewed. Those who would like to understand the nature of miracles better should read the entry on miracles written by esteemed philosopher, Timothy McGrew: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/

What is the skeptic doing when expecting “extraordinary evidence?” He is asking for miraculous evidence to prove miraculous events. However, any evidence offered would itself have to miraculous to justify the miraculous cause, to begin with, leading to a vicious infinite regress of “miraculous” requirements for justification of “miraculous” events. People who object in the like manner create an artificial epistemic test rigged in their favor. Nothing can be presented to meet the criteria because they have excluded the criteria a priori. The radical form of this goes something like this:

  1. miracles are not possible (implicit assumption)
  2. I need miraculous evidence to believe in your claims of miracles (artificial subjective epistemic requirement)
  3. but miracles are not possible so you can’t possibly provide me *anything* (reiteration of implicit assumption as a means to eliminate alternatives)
  4. therefore, the claim of miracles having taken place must be wrong (fallacious conclusion based on a prior exclusion)

Some people find miracles difficult to believe, and this is perfectly respectable. But when evidence is being offered and dispensed of quickly because it does not meet subjective criteria, it is not the rational form of argumentation that is at play, but a subjective evasion of the evidence. Typically, those who bring up the objection with the demand for “extraordinary evidence” find it more psychological self-soothing to posit wild naturalistic alternatives even if it means to stretch credulity beyond its breaking point and at the expense of intellectual consistency.

What is “extraordinary evidence?”

Next, we examine “extraordinary evidence.” What exactly is “extraordinary evidence?” Extraordinary in quality or extraordinary in quantity? If what is meant by “extraordinary” evidence is that of the quality of the evidence, then whatever evidence is offered would inherently be itself extraordinary, and would itself also need to meet the requirement of needing “extraordinary evidence,” ultimately leading to another vicious infinite regress. Therefore, the condition can never be met, leading again to the fallacy of begging the question. It’s a game that is rigged to yield the desired outcome. If what is meant by “extraordinary” evidence is referring to its quantity, the question that quickly follows is this: how much “ordinary” evidence is necessary for the sum to be considered “extraordinary?” And since there is no epistemically determinate solution to that question, it would again be fallaciously begging the question to posit the argument. Either alternative leads to a logical fallacy.

The main contention appears to be that of miracles, but the miracles themselves do NOT require miraculous evidence; mere historical analysis and logical conclusions are fully capable of providing a clear picture of such a reality. But if one is to exclude such conclusions a priori, then there is no amount of evidence “extraordinary” enough to suffice.

Do extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence?

For the sake of intellectual charitable let’s assume that the argument is reasonably sound. Let’s also assign some arbitrary measure to “extraordinary.” Does this maxim communicate something that is generally true about the world and epistemically sound conclusions we form on a daily basis? Unfortunately for the skeptic, it does not. It is demonstrably false to claim that extraordinary claims requirebextraordinary evidence. If we weighed the improbability of the events against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be skeptical of many commonly accepted claims. It’s far more critical to consider the probability that we should have the evidence we have if the event deemed “extraordinary” had never occurred. 1

The fact of the matter is that events, which some would label “extraordinary,” happen all the time. One does not need to demand extraordinary evidence to trust that such events ever took place. Collective features of any particular event may yield the most “extraordinary” event unlikely, yet a set of very ordinary evidence could just as easily justify our trust in the event in question.

Christian apologist, Greg Koukl’s example helps us see that – in 1969 there was what some would label an “extraordinary” claim that a man walked on the moon, and only a decade before that it would have been unthinkable. What kind of evidence would have been adequate to verify the claim that someone indeed walked on the moon? Wouldn’t a simple news reel have been sufficient at the time to test this “extraordinary” claim? That evidence would not itself be extraordinary. Even though there are people who denied then and do so now, that people walked on the moon, they weren’t taken seriously because the set of very ordinary evidence offered was and continues to be quite adequate. In fact, the only reason to doubt the claim may, in fact, be merely for doubt’s sake.

Extraordinary as a loaded term

As you may suspect, the real agenda under the smokescreen of the requirement for “extraordinary evidence” looks to be the expectation of the type of evidence that would first overturn naturalism or materialism. But if typical ordinary evidence is not accepted to be capable of doing that, it is quickly dismissed in this manner. If one were to adopt a materialist picture of reality, which excludes God from the picture a priori, then all forms of evidence, including causes and their ripples in history, are seen through the lens of materialism. Then the typical reaction to the claims of miracle would be to suspect some materialistic answer, even if it means stretching credulity to embrace wild and irrational alternatives. Within this process, the temptation will be for the materialist to opt for more implausible materialistic options for explaining events than the more plausible supernatural options given the set of known historical facts. If one does not dispense of the possibility of miracles before an examination, then it is most certainly possible to be convinced otherwise based on the objective review of the very ordinary evidence.

In some ways, “extraordinary” is a loaded word that has built into it certain presuppositions. What is “extraordinary” will differ depending on the limitations of the speaker’s worldview. For a committed materialist who is doggedly determined to explain ALL events with his disposition to materialism, not any evidence will be “extraordinary” enough since that is implicitly ruled out before the examination.

Thus, by the understanding or presumption of what may be “extraordinary” by the definition of one person with a certain experience, does not necessarily give the person the justification of speak for everyone else’s experiences as a determinate factor for what is meant by “extraordinary.” And even if the consistent understanding of the term were granted, it does not, therefore, follow that the claims then require “extraordinary” evidence. Claiming it so is stacking the deck against miracles, because again, for the skeptic there is going to be no evidence that is going to be extraordinary enough to substantiate what he understands as “extraordinary claims.”

Unreasonable expectations as extraordinary evidence

Could it be that when people ask for extraordinary evidence, they are disingenuous? At least some of those who ask for it are not genuinely interested in weighing evidence of any kind. Their aim is to set up a barrier that can never be crossed, typically as a way to repel the truth. Case in point, atheist James Croft’s comments on the Unbelievable Podcast.

“The amount of eyewitness testimony of the death and resurrection of Jesus can never be enough to convince me, and it shouldn’t be enough to convince any reasonable person. I would never accept any amount of testimony as evidence of the resurrection. The only way I would accept the death and resurrection of anyone is if there were detailed medical records, and there were medical professionals there to verify the death, and I could stand beside the corpse myself, watching what happened.” 2

Now, that’s very convenient – set the bar so high that it can’t ever be scaled. The thing that’s very telling is that there is very little in the way of evidence required to convince the same person of other things that are typically taken for granted. This sort of treatment of evidence reeks of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty. It is an easy alternative, since this relieves the skeptic from having to research, engage with the arguments, think, reason, etc. At its core the demand for “extraordinary evidence” just happens to be a very arbitrary and convenient way to dismiss a claim, that in the eyes of a skeptic, is understood to be “extraordinary” and no such evidence is ever “extraordinary” enough to ever meet the criteria.

What Jesus had to say about unbelief

It is clear that despite mountains of reasonable evidence for the biblical narratives, many, or perhaps most people will simply not believe, and as it happens to be, this was also the verdict of human nature that Jesus clarified,

Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.

“Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” (John 4:46-48)

From the form the conversation took, it’s clear that the royal official had heard about many of the miracles that Jesus had performed. Otherwise, it would be a bit out of place for Jesus to chide him for not believing, and referring to their expectation to see signs and wonders before believing. When hearing of such incredible claims, the most rational course of action for any person would be, instead of rationalizing the evidence of his already accepted worldview, to weigh the credibility of the many witnesses who made such claims. Indeed, by this time thousands had witnessed such miracles. If the credibility of one or two witnesses could be put in question for whatever reason, the likelihood of so many people all telling lies, and further to be telling the same types of lies in different places at different times, is highly improbable. However, like many of us, he probably heard about the miracles but went about his life like nothing ever happened. Such is the person who requires extraordinary evidence – there is little in the way of effort to sift out the truth. People are simply more at ease to sit back in their radical skepticism and expect miracles at their feet before even considering such monumental truths.

Photo credit: jacilluch via Source / CC BY-SA

  1. S. L. Zabell’s _The Probabilistic Analysis of Testimony_ (Journal of Statistical Planning and Inference 20 (1988): 327-54)
  2. Premier Christian Radio, http://www.premierradio.org.uk/shows/saturday/unbelievable.aspx

About the Author Arthur Khachatryan

Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.