Saturday, February 10, 2018

Extraordinary Claims - Who Needs Evidence?

Most reasonable people understand what Carl Sagan meant by his expression: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  If someone tells me that an everyday event occurred, I have little or no reason to doubt the truth of that claim.  But if they tell me something occurred that rarely or never happens, it would be reasonable to doubt that claim unless they provide sufficient reason for me to believe it.  What is sufficient reason?  Obviously, it depends to some degree on the person who is being convinced.  Is that person credulous or skeptical?  Is there motivation to believe?  Sagan's expression assumes a person who isn't credulous or motivated by other factors to believe the claim.  Some people will believe anything.  Some are motivated to believe for reasons other than sufficient evidence.  In that case, they may try to deny the value of evidence in an effort to discredit skeptics.  Such is the case with Dean Meadows, Christian apologist at Apologia Institute.  Meadows presents three arguments against Sagan's epistemological rule of thumb.

Let me start by addressing the question of what I think constitutes an extraordinary claim, and what constitutes extraordinary evidence.  Obviously, these things are a matter of judgment.  There is no standard we can refer to.  Extraordinary is a matter of degree.  Something that is commonplace is not extraordinary.  Something that is rare can be called extraordinary.  We can say that a measure how extraordinary something is would be the inverse of its probability.  The lower the probability, the more extraordinary something is.  This determines a level of doubt we should have to believe a claim that it occurred.  And the requirement for evidence should be judged accordingly.  Again, there is no standard.  But as a rule, the more extraordinary a claim is, the more evidence I need to believe it.

As to the first of Meadows' arguments, he says that Sagan's expression is "asserted as a universal principle", which supposedly entails that it requires extraordinary evidence for us to believe that this principle is true.  But since this evidence doesn't exist, he says, then the principle is logically self-defeating.  I'm not sure what Meadows means by "universal principle", but to me it would imply something that everybody accepts.  There are axioms of logic that are universally accepted.  Why?  Because they are self-evident or matters of common sense.  Reasonable people accept them.  Obviously, that's not what Meadows means.  He seems to be saying the opposite of that - that reasonable people shouldn't accept this principle without having extraordinary reason to think it's true.  I have no idea what basis he has for saying such a thing.  I don't buy it.  First of all, I wouldn't call it a "universal principle", but I would call it a common-sense rule of thumb.  It is eminently reasonable.  It makes sense to most reasonable people.  And it fits with our experience of reality.  I'm sure that Meadows himself abides by it in all matters other than his religious beliefs.  Is it self-refuting?  Sorry, no.  Not by ordinary standards of logic.  This argument is simply ridiculous.

Next, in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, he wonders why skeptics don't just accept the historiographical approach of scholars.  That's a good question.  I think skeptics do accept historical methodology when it is properly applied.  There are plenty of well-respected scholars who have studied the claims of the resurrection, used accepted historical method, and reject the historicity of it.  But not all scholars reject it.  I think it's fair to say the every single historical scholar who believes the resurrection actually happened is a Christian.  And that fact casts doubt on their willingness to view the evidence objectively.  They have an ideological motivation to believe, despite the fact that evidence for the resurrection is severely limited.  There are the biblical stories, and nothing else.  Any similar claim with similar evidence, would be rejected by them if it didn't threaten their religious beliefs.  These "scholars" are not taking a valid historiographical approach.  They are merely engaged in confirming their religious beliefs.  The second law of thermodynamics tells us that such a thing could never happen in the natural world.  So we have good reason to doubt it, even before we begin to examine the evidence.  Ancient history is typically problematic, because available evidence is often lacking.  Still, objective scholars would at least expect to see some independent corroboration of the biblical stories.  But there is none.  As it is, there is some doubt as to whether Jesus existed, and apart from the bible, not a single shred of independent evidence that he actually rose from the dead.  But Meadows claims that skeptics contrive this need for evidence to mask their a priori rejection of the resurrection.  Actually, I think he rejects the need for evidence to mask his own a priori belief, in the absence of evidence.

The final argument he makes is that skeptics really don't abide by this principle in the first place.  They only want to use it against Christians.  He gives the example of a lottery in which the odds of winning are one in 230 million.  He asks why skeptics never demand to see extraordinary evidence to back up news reports that somebody won the lottery.  This reveals his poor understanding of probability.  Because it's not extraordinary at all that someone should win.  Every time they have a drawing, there are millions of lottery tickets in the pool, and it's not even slightly unusual for someone to win.  Why should a skeptic doubt that?  On the other hand, if a particular individual tries to claim the prize, his odds are one in 230 million (if he only bought one ticket).  Should we believe him?  Not unless he gives some very good evidence that he won.  The winning lottery ticket would constitute extraordinary evidence, because the odds of him having it are the same as his odds of winning.  So he has to produce the ticket, or we shouldn't believe him.  In answer to Meadows question, I have no reason to doubt the news report that somebody won, because that is not extraordinary.  But I don't demand evidence for the news report to show proof that a particular individual won, because it doesn't matter to me.  If I had to pay the prize, I would certainly demand the evidence.

From these three arguments, we can see that Meadows is grasping at straws.  He says that the principle of needing extraordinary evidence to believe extraordinary claims is self-refuting.  He wants us to believe that the biblical stories of the resurrection alone are sufficient evidence to satisfy scholars.  And he claims that skeptics don't demand extraordinary evidence except when it comes to refuting the claims of Christians.  Each of these arguments is absurd.  But they tell us that this Christian is willing to forgo common sense in his quest to justify his belief.  He is willing to accept the slimmest of evidence, and tell the rest of us that we are contriving an unreasonable demand for evidence only to justify our own refusal to believe.  But outside the context of their religion, Christians are usually just as skeptical as the rest of us.

Christians love to claim that their faith is based on solid evidence.  They use grossly contorted logic in an attempt to make their credulity sound reasonable.  They love to tell skeptics that they are the ones who are unreasonable because they don't see a dearth evidence as being sufficient to justify belief in something that is highly dubious.  This is what faith does to an otherwise intelligent person.


  1. "...I would call it a common-sense rule of thumb."

    I'm thinking that I would call it sage council and wise advice.

    1. I love it when a religionist tells me "You don't think the evidence for the resurrection is rock-solid? You're no skeptic."

  2. A fun mental exercise is willingly suspend disbelief and take the resurrection seriously: so, exactly what is the process the produces a resurrected body? How did the heart start beating again? How did oxygen get back in 3 day old blood? How were all the interrelated biochemical processes restarted? How was all the damage reversed so the body could live again but still retain the wounds?

    And so on. There are, of course, no good answers. It just happened (or someone just made up the story).