Tom Gilson

Extraordinary Evidence

Could somebody provide a tightly reasoned demonstration of the claim that extraordinary claims really do require extraordinary evidence? Or showing the converse (that the claim is not supportable)? It makes a nice slogan, and we can all think of examples where it fits, but is it really a requirement? If so, for what is it required?

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17 thoughts on “Extraordinary Evidence

  1. Tom:

    Below I provide a number of sources that address this issue dialectically. You are correct to phrase your request the way you did, Tom. You should demand a demonstration–not just a mere proof (formally valid only). Note that such a claim is a philosophical one–not and MES one, and so anyone trying to provide a sound (formally and materially) argument will have to reason beyond the data obtained through the MESs. I’m sure much of the discussion will revolve around what counts as “evidence” and what decides… and what “extraordinary” actually means.

    Quotes from G.K. Chesterton:
         But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America.
         The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.
         The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.
         The rest is all cant and repetition and arguing in a circle; all the baseless dogmatism about science forbidding men to believe in miracles; as if science could forbid men to believe in something which science does not profess to investigate.
         Science is the study of the admitted laws of existence; it cannot prove a universal negative about whether those laws could ever be suspended by something admittedly above them.
         As a matter of fact, we are the freer of the two; as there is scarcely any evidence, natural or preternatural, that cannot be accepted as fitting into our system somewhere; whereas the materialist cannot fit the most minute miracle into his system anywhere.

    Passantino’s Argument
    http://theosophical.blogspot.com/2007/03/extraordinary-claims-require.html
         The assumption of atheism argues that apart from evidence for the existence of God, people are justified in assuming atheism to be true. The motto of this brand of atheism is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” From their perspective, the evidence in favor of theism is not extraordinary, so they are intellectually justified in dismissing theism. Bob and Gretchen Passantino respond to this argument as follows:
         It is an extraordinary claim to say this vast and complex universe came from nothing and was caused by nothing. It’s an extraordinary claim to tell us the incredible order we see throughout the universe was caused by blind chance. It’s an extraordinary claim to argue that the innate sense of right and wrong that all of us share—even when it condemns our own actions—came about by non-moral mindlessness or mere human consensus… In conclusion, no, the evidence is far too weak to believe the extraordinary claim of atheism that there is no God behind these things.
         How atheists miss this is an extraordinary phenomenon!

    Michael Dulle in response to a criticism of the above:
         “Extraordinary claims require/demand extraordinary evidence.” While atheists often use this to argue against Christianity, the fact of the matter is that it argues against atheism. The claims of atheism are much more extraordinary than the claims of theism. Yet someone may respond by saying, “Yet, believers in GOD(s) forget that all human thoughts are man-made; thus, so is God.” This is so typical of the lazy and convoluted thinking characteristic of postmodern thought. Here is how to respond:
         Your statement sounds like a bumper sticker: nice ring to it, but lacking in critical thought. What does it mean to say human thoughts are “man-made”? If you mean humans have the ability to generate thoughts, then what you have communicated is a tautology. The human ability to generate thought (“man-made”) is the definition of “human thoughts.” So saying human thoughts are man-made adds nothing to your original description. Ultimately, then you’re left arguing that since humans have the ability to generate thoughts about God, God must be a figment of our imagination.
         But how does that follow? The implicit premise of your argument (that which is needed for your conclusion to follow your stated premise) is that if humans generate a thought about something, the object of our thought must be a figment of our own creation/imagination. Does this premise hold true for objects other than God? Do you apply this logic to food? I would imagine that you have had thoughts of eating pizza. Does this make the object of your thought (pizza) a figment of your imagination? Of course not. How absurd would it sound to argue that “all human thoughts are man-made; thus, so is pizza”? Pizza is an objective part of reality, and your ability to generate thoughts about it doesn’t make it any less so.
         As a human thinker, you have the ability to generate thoughts about reality. If God exists in reality, then you would have the ability to generate thoughts about His existence just as you do pizza. I’m not saying the ability to think about God proves that God exists in reality, but rather that the ability to think about God cannot possibly be used to argue for His non-existence anymore than your ability to think about pizza argues for its non-existence. Your observation about the human ability to generate thoughts simply has no bearing on the question of whether God exists or not.
         Using your logic, for God to be real we would have to lack the ability to think about Him. For the moment we were able to think about His existence He would cease to be real. That makes absolutely no sense at all.

    William James in The Will to Believe:
         “[A] rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.”

    C.S. Lewis in Miracles:
         “If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion…. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.”

  2. Any thoughts on how to define an “extraordinary claim”? This seems like a good place to begin.

    Suppose that an extraordinary claim is one that is logically inconsistence with what we might call a “strongly justified” thesis. To endorse such a claim is therefore to deny the strongly justified thesis. But, we might say, to legitimately deny a strongly justified thesis requires one to have rather strong (if not “stronger”) justification. We can call this strong justification that is required “extraordinary evidence”.

  3. Tom, I think I’m agreeing with CT:

    The principle on which the extraordinary evidence dictum rests is this: given two opposing claims, we should favor the one that has more and better evidence for it. We can argue a lot about what is more evidence, and what is better evidence, but that is immaterial to this principle. No matter what we decide is better evidence and more evidence, we should still favor a claim that has more and better evidence than another claim.

    The extraordinary evidence dictum merely applies this principle to the case in which there is an extraordinary amount of good evidence for a claim. Applying the principle, we will need as much or even more evidence, of equal or better quality, to favor the opposing claim. An extraordinary claim is merely one that is opposed to a claim that has an extraordinary amount of evidence.

  4. I assume extraordinary claims you may be talking about are such that we as Christians lay as fundamentals of our faith in contrast to those supported by many atheists and the like…

    I don’t personally go out of my way to “prove” anything – but rather only speak from personal experience. And one must only take what I say at face value if they have doubt.

    For example, I have been asked many times to give evidence of miraculous healing I have been witness to. Of course, I can not recreate them, and did not happen to have a video camera with me at the moment so, I can offer no “proof”. Needless to say, that doesn’t change my knowledge nor the recipient’s of what was and is no more. An example:
    A man who had no tongue – for whatever reason. He asked for prayer – as we prayed, a tongue grew in his mouth.
    A woman who had a large tumor on her neck (about the size of a small melon)…as she was prayed over, it disappeared.
    Or, recently – a client of mine – who I wrote about here.

    These are extraordinary claims certainly – but very common place in the Kingdom of God….

    I have learned to not try to understand or explain them.

  5. I would say that an extraordinary claim is one that goes against the cumulative evidence of ordinary experience; thus, extraordinary evidence (i.e., evidence that is stronger than the cumulative evidence of ordinary experience) is required to support such a claim.

  6. Thanks for the excellent responses here! I did some looking around and found this from Frank Turek, about the nature of extraordinary evidence.

    First, does extraordinary evidence mean something beyond the natural? Then the only admissible evidence for a miracle would be a miracle.

    Does it mean repeatably observable? Then all of history is ruled out, not just miracle claims. To that I would add this. You might object, “No, not all of history is extraordinary is the Resurrection (for instance) is claimed to be.” But you are still ruling out the possibility of evidence for the Resurrection, without even having to bother to check whether there is any. It’s an evidence-free, evidence-irrelevant argument against the Resurrection, which ought to seem bothersome to people who insist on evidence for their beliefs.

    Then he writes, “If it means more than usual that’s what we have for the Resurrection.” More evidence than we have for any other long-ago history, certainly. I’ll come back to this third point in a moment.

    Finally Turek reminds us that atheism involves some extraordinary claims. “If you don’t want God, then you’d better have a multiverse,” says Bernard Carr—a virtually infinite array of undetectable theoretical universes, with no evidence that they exist and little hope of any such evidence ever being produced.

    Now back to the third point above: I left unstated a condition that needs to be discussed. The claims for the Resurrection are attested by evidence that exceeds the ordinary, as anyone aware of the facts, including atheists, ought to be able to agree. But we must ask whether the evidence enough more than ordinary to justify concluding that Jesus rose from the dead. Which leads to the further question, how should we quantify that? How would we know when extraordinary was extraordinary enough?

    I presume doctor(logic) will go with a Bayesian analysis to produce a probability function on it. That’s fine if it also includes analysis of the alternatives to the Resurrection theory—which are extraordinary claims in their own right. These include ideas like a mass hallucination theory, a hoax theory, etc. I can’t go into all the reasons these are improbable right now, but I do want to place those issues on the table because they do matter.

  7. Thank you for those quotes, Holopupenko. When I read the William James quote, repeated here:

    “[A] rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.”

    I immediately thought of Sam Harris’s most fundamental error (see the second point there). I hope nobody reading here is making the same mistake, at least not to the same degree, anyway.

  8. Tom, my sense is that you’re working with a different idea of “extraordinary” than the idea of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence can rationally support.

    The idea is not that there is some evidence that is common and ordinary, and some evidence, by its nature and quality, being extraordinary in, dare I say, absolute terms. Rather, the idea is merely a relative comparison. In fact, the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is merely, as I said in my earlier post, a specific case of a more general principle, which is really what is operating: a claim needs more and better evidence than its competitors in order to be adopted.

    So, for instance, your first question:

    First, does extraordinary evidence mean something beyond the natural

    puts the issue in the wrong terms. Extraordinary evidence is not necessarily natural or not (or at least that discussion is a different one, beyond the original idea of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence), but it is merely more and better than the opposing claim, whether that is natural or not.

  9. Paul,

    Notice that I asked this:

    But we must ask whether the evidence enough more than ordinary to justify concluding that Jesus rose from the dead. Which leads to the further question, how should we quantify that? How would we know when extraordinary was extraordinary enough?

  10. Tom, your first sentence I don’t get grammatically (“evidence enough more than ordinary”).

    The way we know that it’s extraordinary enough is easy: it only has to be more than the evidence for the opposing claim.

    The real devil is in the details of what evidence counts more than others, in what the word extraordinary really means in terms of evidence. Slightly different approach, but critical, I think, for seeing the correct problem.

    The problems of weighing evidence precisely against evidence for an opposing claim shouldn’t prevent us from accepting the general principle as otherwise sound.

  11. Sorry about the lack of clarity, Paul, but judging from the rest of what you wrote, you understood it the way I intended it.

    The problems of weighing evidence precisely against evidence for an opposing claim shouldn’t prevent us from accepting the general principle as otherwise sound.

    Ah, that helps. Actually it takes away from the maxim almost completely. It’s not whether a claim is “extraordinary,” it’s whether the evidence for it is greater than the evidence against it. That’s a principle to apply even for the most ordinary claims. “Dad, I cleaned my room like you told me to.” “Okay, let me look and see how clean it is.” I go and check the evidence for and against the claim. Nothing miraculous involved there! (Except I’m sure a lot of dads and moms reading this are shaking their heads and saying, “Oh, yes, it is a miracle if my kid actually cleans his or her room!”)

    It seems to me we can set the whole saying aside. How do we know whether a claim is extraordinary? Some call it extraordinary to claim God created the universe. I say it’s extraordinary to claim that we live in one of an infinite number of universes, all of which are purely theoretical and unobservable except our own. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, there’s a claim that’s more-than-extraordinarily lacking!

    Again: you may consider it extraordinary to say that we live in a world created with purpose; I think it’s an extraordinary thing to deny it. It too is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence.

    But I would rather stick with what you just said, Paul, and compare evidence against evidence. This whole thing about “extraordinary” claims is extraordinarily unhelpful.

  12. Yes, Tom, exactly. It’s not whether the claim is extraordinary in some sense isolated from how much evidence it would take to overturn the contrary claim. So, perhaps it’s unfortunate that the phrase has been coined the way it has, because it can lead to a misinterpretation.

    Let’s be sure, though, to keep one thing: if there is a claim that is very well confirmed, it’s going to take a bunch of evidence against it to overthrow it. Maybe that’s a better re-phrasing.

  13. One further refinement on the issue before letting it go:

    With respect to the Resurrection of Christ, what is the contrary fact that’s being overturned? Doctor Logic repeatedly says it’s that we know from billions of cases that dead men don’t rise again. But I don’t think that’s the relevant question at all, for if Christ were thought to be just any man who died, whose probabilities of rising again should be figured among the probabilities of the general population, we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place.

    The competing claims are:
    1) Christ was the Son of God and by the power of God rose from the dead in an utterly unique event, and
    2) Christ did not rise from the dead.

    Claim (2) could take several forms, including (for example) that Christ never even existed, that he was a mythical figure in the first place. Given the nature of (1), however, the statistics DL has been repeatedly quoting in his prior comments are of little relevance. The relevant statistic would be something like, “What percentage of actually divine persons rise from the dead?” To which Christians would reply “100%,” and others might say the sample size is too small. They could not say that the odds against it are billions to one, though, because they really don’t have billions of other cases to draw from.

  14. Tom, I think you’re confusing the issue. The actual competing claims pertaining to this discussion are:

    1a) Jesus rose from the dead.
    2a) Jesus did not rise from the dead.

    Obviously, the initial (i.e., prior to any consideration of Jesus’ divinity) probability of 1a is going to be very low compared to 2a for the reason DL has given. One way to increase it would be to prove that Jesus was the Son of God (side note: I’m not quite sure how this would make 1a more likely than 2a…); to do so, you’d have to deal with a new pair of claims:

    1b) Jesus was the Son of God.
    2b) Jesus was not the Son of God.

    Again, the initial probability of 1b is comparitively low (since the vast majority of self-proclaimed messiahs turn out to be delusional or fraudulent). So how are you going to increase it? You can’t appeal to the resurrection at this point, since 1a (the resurrection) depends on 1b, and vice versa — in other words, 1a won’t have overcome 2a until 1b has overcome 2b, which won’t happen until 1a overcomes 2a, etc. It’s a vicious circle. Clearly you have to bring in (and support) some 3rd, independent claim to establish either 1a or 1b. Right?

  15. From a probability standpoint, Jordan, the two sets of claims are not independent. They are completely intertwined, and cannot be assessed independently of each other. So the way I expressed it is far better for the sake of considering probabilities, especially in response to Doctor Logic who says Jesus must be regarded as one in 10 billion. We do not claim that Jesus is one in 10 billion, so why would the one in 10 billion statistic be relevant?

  16. Thank you for this post and thread. I have wondered for a long time, and have even asked in various forums, what exactly is meant by “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. I have yet to encounter any explanation that justifies the dictum in my mind.

    Picking up on some comments over at Raving (A)theist, a while back, I opined as follows:

    For years, I have thought the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” assertion was obviously stupid and just an excuse for somebody to decline to accept evidence that points to a conclusion he doesn’t want to arrive at. Now I find out that “extraordinary” really means just “really, really, really good”. LOL. I still think it means what I thought it meant.

    From the discussion here, am I to understand that “extraordinary evidence” really means “the preponderance of the evidence”? I am starting to think that, in this context, “extraordinary” really means “ordinary”.

    I don’t want to be hasty, but I’m even more inclined to think that the meaning of the dictum in practice is “If I don’t wanna believe it, you ain’t gonna convince me, no how”. Or something like that. 🙂

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