Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence, No Ifs Ands or Buts About It

I like provocative post titles. They're fun to create. Carl Sagan popularized this principle, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What I argue more precisely, is that extraordinary claims require a sufficient amount of objective evidence for them, especially when we have good reasons to expect the evidence should exist. The first thing you'll notice is that what I argue for works regardless of whether we're dealing with an ordinary or an extraordinary claim. The difference is how much evidence is required. When it comes to extraordinary claims a lot of evidence is required, whereas with ordinary claims we only need a little of it. All someone has to do is consider how much evidence would be required to believe me, if I said I levitated this morning for 5 minutes. Then compare this with my claim that I just ate breakfast. I'm sure you would not believe my claim that I levitated, whereas you probably would when I say I just ate breakfast. These two claims would clearly require a different amount of evidence to accept them.

The line of demarcation between ordinary and extraordinary claims is blurred, I admit. But there can be no doubt that claiming a dead man was brought back to life is an extraordinary claim. Does anyone think otherwise? Without a doubt it requires a lot of evidence, sufficient objective evidence, before any reasonable person should accept it. So I'm not troubled in the least with Christian attempts to sidetrack the real issue of concrete miracle claims by focusing on the demarcation line between ordinary and extraordinary claims at all. Nor am I troubled in the least when Christians question the need for sufficient objective evidence by pointing to irrelevant definitional issues, like what is objectively beautiful, or what is the best color, or whether people should prefer steak to sushi. For when it comes to the nature and workings of the universe, which is the real issue, reasonable people should require sufficient objective evidence before accepting any conclusion.

Christian apologists focus on the wrong issues because they have a need to believe Jesus was raised from the dead. Take for example William Lane Craig's short video where he says this requirement concerning extraordinary claims "Is demonstrably false."

His example of the lottery is almost insane of course. Prior to the lottery balls falling into place, it would be intrinsically unlikely that any given set of numbers would obtain, yes. But if the nightly news showed footage of the balls falling into place, along with some guy holding a check for millions of dollars, then we would have sufficient objective evidence to think the news story is true. We could always be wrong, but possibilities don't count. And if we really needed more evidence then we could check into it. More importantly though, it is not an extraordinary claim that a certain set of numbers were picked, since we know a certain set of numbers would be picked if the balls fell. We can even say that if there are 60 million combinations of numbers and there are 20 million tickets bought, then the odds of someone winning are 1 in 3. If the lottery takes place on a weekly basis given those same odds, then we know there will be a winner eventually. That is, someone, some individual (or group of winners) will win it.

If anything, my analysis should show that William Lane Craig has the need to believe. That's why he concocted such an example in the first place. It's obvious to the rest of us. The example of the lottery is not an extraordinary claim, and even if it is, there is a sufficient amount of evidence to think someone actually won it.

Why do apologists like Craig feel as if they must deny the need for sufficient objective evidence anyway? If he really wants to compare alternative hypotheses, as he says we should do, then what is the probability that Christian apologists must deny the need for sufficient objective evidence if Jesus was raised from the dead? One would think that if Jesus arose from the dead there would be sufficient objective evidence that he did. The very fact that Craig thinks such a requirement is "demonstrably false" is because there isn't sufficient objective evidence for the Christian claim.

Either there is sufficient objective evidence to conclude Jesus arose, or there is not. If there is, then Craig should not be objecting to the requirement for sufficient objective evidence. If there isn't, then there is no reason to believe. He can't have it both ways. Private subjective experiences are no evidence at all, except for private subjective states of our minds.

Why isn't there sufficient objective evidence of the resurrection? Simple. Read what Bart Ehrman wrote. Go ahead. Read it. End of story. The alternative hypotheses to be compared are not the ones Craig proposes. The correct alternatives to be compared are whether it's more probable than not that ancient pre-scientific superstitious stories are true, or that an impossible event took place.

Craig believes, given the presupposition that God exists, it's more likely than not that miracles take place. So given that presupposition it follows that the stories told by ancient pre-scientific superstitious people take precedence over the impossibility that dead people stay dead. But this is delusional on two counts. In the first place, billions of people are theists who reject the resurrection of Jesus, even though they believe in a creator God and that he does miracles. If the presupposition that a miracle working God exists is supposed to lead theists to become Christians, then why are these theists still non-Christians? In the second place, the so-called evidence for miracles is either used as evidence that God exists, or it isn't. If it is, then we don't need the supposition that God exists when examining this so-called evidence. If however, the evidence for miracles is not used as evidence that God exists, then where is the evidence that God exists? In the case of the resurrection hypothesis, the raw uninterpreted historical evidence alone should lead people to believe in the Christian God. Craig cannot presuppose that the Christian God exists as a presupposition before examining this evidence. But as Bart Ehrman shows, it does not seem possible that 2nd -3rd -4th handed testimony coming from ancient pre-scientific superstitious people as found in 4th century manuscripts that have been doctored up by the church is enough to overturn the impossibility that dead men return to life. We need sufficient objective evidence commensurate with the claim being made, and this one requires a lot of evidence to back it up, the kind that seems quite impossible to attain, even if it happened.

Now with this out of the way, let's see exactly what Carl Sagan was getting at. A few years ago I was a speaker for CFI Canada's "Extraordinary Claims" campaign, along with a few others that addressed this issue. I was given the task of speaking about Jesus. Their site is still up and I highly recommend it. Here are two Frequently Asked Questions that were answered very well by them:
2. Why do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

Marcello Truzzi (1935 – 2003), a leading investigator of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, wrote “And when such claims are extraordinary, that is, revolutionary in their implications for established scientific generalizations already accumulated and verified, we must demand extraordinary proof.” (Editorial in The Zetetic (Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall/Winter 1976, p 4)). This referred back to the statement by French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace (1749 – 1827) “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” In other words, it’s sensible to demand that the more a new claim is at odds with well established facts of the universe, the more extraordinary should be the evidence for its veracity. Telekinesis, for example, is entirely inconsistent with huge portions of physics, while homeopathy is entirely inconsistent with huge portions of chemistry. The sciences of physics and chemistry, which are built on hundreds of experiments, replicated hundreds of times in hundreds of different labs, would have to be totally overturned for these new claims to be correct.

3. What is Extraordinary Evidence?

Evidence should be proportional to the claim being made. For mundane claims that do not radically alter our understanding of the world as built up from hundreds of consistent tests and pieces of data over many centuries, less evidence is required. It’s the difference between saying “I have a pet dog” (mundane claim that doesn’t require a lot of evidence to believe) vs “I have a pet dragon” (extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence). LINK
But what about scientific claims. Are there Any Extraordinary Claims for which Extraordinary Evidence has been discovered? Yes! Follow the link to see which ones.

One last thing. Here is a list of extraordinary claims. Now the Christian apologist should try differentiating between these claims. Why are they not all in the same category? Why do they think there is sufficient evidence for their claims and not the others? I have proposed the only way they can know in my book The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True. How do they propose investigating them?