Do Extraordinary Events Require Extraordinary Evidence?
G. Brady Lenardos
(A poster used by the Canadian Center for Inquiry in a 2010 campaign)
This paper is not about religion. Yes, topics such as the supernatural, miracles and specifically the resurrection of Jesus will come into play, but only peripherally, as examples. This is a paper dealing with logic, with rational thinking. There will be no calls to pray and if you began reading this paper as a skeptic or agnostic, you will more than likely finish it the same way. I am not writing to change people’s religious beliefs, but to help rid them of a bit of logical nonsense.
As a Christian, I often get a chance to discuss many different topics with atheists, agnostics and those of other religions; the existence of God, the intelligent design of our universe and the resurrection of Jesus, are just a few examples of what come up. While discussing these issues it seems that the same objections arise almost every time. In this paper I would like to fully address one objection that is difficult for most to answer, but does have an answer.
It is usually brought up when discussing miracles, such as the resurrection of Jesus as an historical event. Consider the following excerpt from a conversation that took place between an atheist and myself:
Atheist: I have had several other Christians show me the supposed evidence for the resurrection. Quite frankly, I was not impressed. After they were through, I was convinced more than ever that there was little or no evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
GBL: I find that interesting. Would you mind telling me what criteria you used to judge the quality of the evidence, and what baseline you used to judge the quantity of evidence required to affirm that the event took place?
Atheist: As for the quality and the quantity, we both know that the claim for an extraordinary event requires extraordinary evidence, and that kind of evidence simply was not there.
The statement that was supposed to stop me in my tracks was "claims for an extraordinary event requires extraordinary evidence." Since this phrase could be used by an atheist, or an agnostic, or even a deist, I will use the word “skeptic” to generically refer to the person who uses it, for purposes of this paper.
The demand for extraordinary evidence has become somewhat of an axiom among skeptics. You will note how this skeptic in the above dialog adds "we both know," as if the demand is a self-evident proposition. There are several reasons why this phrase has gained wide popularity: it is short, simple, easy to remember, and at first glance it looks like a bit of sound reasoning. However, a systematic analysis of it will prove it to be nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Back to the beginning
One of the most popular and famous, modern expressions of this “axiom” was by Carl Sagan (1934 —1996). Sagan was an astronomer that attempted to popularize astronomy for the general public through his books and on television. On his television program “Cosmos,” (episode 12, December 21, 1980) Sagan stated the position with the same wording that it is currently stated by most skeptics today: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Some have even gone so far as to call this “Sagan’s Dictum.”
Another person to use this phrase, and even elevate it to a rule of logic was Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011), one of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the “new atheist” movement. In an article posted on an Internet website, Hitchens rails against the beatification of Mother Teresa by the Roman Catholic Church when he writes: “One of the curses of India, as of other poor countries, is the quack medicine man, who fleeces the sufferer by promises of miraculous healing. Sunday was a great day for these parasites, who saw their crummy methods endorsed by his holiness and given a more or less free ride in the international press. Forgotten were the elementary rules of logic, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” - Slate.com, Mommie Dearest, Oct. 20th, 2003
But these aren’t the only expressions of this idea; there are hundreds, if not thousands in modern skeptical writings. However, this is not just a modern phenomenon; it can be traced back to the mid-18th century.
Pierre Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827), a French astronomer and mathematician came up with a bit less eloquent way of saying the same thing as his modern counterparts. He wrote, “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” - The Principle of Laplace.
The works of Laplace in the area of mathematics, astronomy and physics are still in use in these fields today. If fact, from a true science background it is arguable that Laplace is the “big name” when it comes to those that have held and written on this topic.
Although Laplace may be the top dog with a science background when it comes to the proponents of this idea, the person who may be credited with being the first to get this idea out into the public is philosopher and historian David Hume (1711 – 1776). In his book, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” Hume has a chapter concerning miracles. In it he proposes a canon of test for demonstrating the likelihood of a miracle ever occurring. At one point he sums up, “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” Quite a mouthful, but it express the same idea that we find in our modern skeptical thinking, as in the rest of the chapter in Hume’s book.
What does the statement mean?
We see by these above statements that the skeptic is not satisfied in using the normal means and methods in determining the truth of claims he concludes to be an extraordinary claim. He demands something more -- "extraordinary evidence." The problem is that I have not found a skeptic who knows what they mean when they ask for extraordinary evidence.
In any discussion where the demand for extraordinary evidence is made, there are two burdens of proof that must be met. The first is by the person demanding extraordinary evidence; after all if the skeptic is asking for extraordinary evidence, he should know what he is asking for and be able to tell us what it is. The second would be on the person making the claim. However, if the understanding of extraordinary evidence remains ambiguous or merely subjective, we can place no extra burden on the person making the claim; he need only provide the same quantity and quality of evidence that would be necessary for any other claim.
In the above quote by Hume, he attempts to provide a method for determining extraordinary evidence; and in 2010, an organization of skeptics, The Center for Inquiry – Canada (CFI) attempted to give a definition of extraordinary evidence in a campaign to promote skepticism. The theme of the campaign was, “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.” The poster for that event can be seen at the top of this page. Their definition was, “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.’”
You will notice that with both Hume and those at the CFI do not offer objective ways of determining extraordinary evidence, they simply move the problem one step back to the claim itself. Neither offer an objective means to determine how much or what kind of evidence is required to affirm the claim in question. It should be noted that in the over 250 years, since Hume, no one has offered any objective means or methods for determining how to objectively formulate “extraordinary evidence.” Given the nature of the statement, is should be clear that there is no way, in principle or in fact, to offer an objective method for formulating what the skeptic calls “extraordinary evidence.” When all is said and done, we will find that the statement “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence,” is both philosophically and scientifically unviable. In other words, the demand is philosophically a nonsense statement, i.e. there is no way to construe what extraordinary evidence is, nor is there any way to verify or falsify any such attempts. With this said it follows that anything called “extraordinary evidence” can offer nothing of scientific value.
Asking the question, “What objective method is being used to determine what ‘extraordinary evidence’ is,” or “where is the objective scale that is used to determine what qualifies as extraordinary evidence,” often brings a bit of clarity to the skeptic who does not know how to answer such questions. His problem may become obvious to him, “how does one objectively determine what kind of evidence is required before one can affirm an extraordinary claim occurred?” Over the years I have found that the skeptic has no objective method by which he can make these decisions. You will find that what is meant by extraordinary evidence is really evidence that suits the skeptic's subjective likes and dislikes.
If we set the above aside for a moment and give a very huge benefit of the doubt to the skeptic, we can look and try to understand what the skeptic could possibly be talking about when he asks for extraordinary evidence. We need to determine what he is asking for; and he needs to tell us what he is asking for. The skeptic could be asking for any or all of the following:
1) A higher quality of evidence.
2) A different kind of evidence.
3) A greater amount of evidence.
Let's look at the first possible meaning of extraordinary evidence, a higher quality of evidence. The skeptic may be asking that other tests be added to our criteria when working with extraordinary claims. If this is all that is meant, we should have no problem with this approach and should welcome whatever tests the skeptic brings to the table, as long as he is willing to follow a few reasonable guidelines when selecting his criterion
1) The criterion must be able to be met, at least in principle. Sometimes people will make demands for evidence that cannot be met even in principle. The skeptic may ask for evidence that will prove with 100% certainty that some extraordinary event occurred. If you are unable to provide such evidence, the skeptic will then consider his unbelief justified. What the skeptic doesn't realize is that he has committed a categorical fallacy!
There are two types of reasoning that we use to determine truth: deduction and induction. Deduction deals with formal logic that produces necessary conclusions, conclusions that are 100% certain. Induction deals with informal arguments and yields probable conclusions. These are conclusions that rational people adhere to, because the rational person goes with the evidence and not against it. When dealing in the areas of law, science and history we use inductive reasoning. All of these areas can only yield probable conclusions. As you can see, if the skeptic demands 100% certainty, he is asking for a deductive argument. But historical investigation is an inductive process. Here the skeptic is demanding a deductive conclusion to an inductive argument. He is asking that the characteristics of the one category (deduction) be applied to another category (induction). This is fallacious reasoning and must be pointed out. This type of criterion cannot even be met in principle. If the test cannot be met, at least in principle, then it is not a real test. It is simply masquerading as a test.
2) The conclusions of the criterion cannot conflict with known fact. It is also improper to have a test that not only falsifies the claim at hand, but other claims we already affirm to be true. For example, let's take David Hume's canon against the miraculous that is found in his “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” Here Hume set up a battery of tests. In the end these tests show that no one can affirm that a miracle ever took place. However, in Hume's own day it was shown that, given these same tests, no one could affirm that Napoleon had been Emperor of France, or that he had ever lived. This was an intriguing idea since Napoleon was still alive and living in exile.
I have found that many of the methods that have been suggested by skeptics, in fact, destroy the possibility of knowing anything about history at all.
3) The criterion must be objective. In other words, the test should yield the same result, regardless of the personal opinions of those applying it. For example, if the test only disproves the resurrection of Jesus when a skeptic applies it, or another test only substantiates the resurrection when a Christian applies it, the test should be rejected.
4) The criterion must be one which has been used in historical research and has been demonstrated as a reliable way of determining history. I number of years ago I was reading a paper written by a skeptic. In the paper he admits that there is more evidence for the reliability of the New Testament than any other book of ancient times. However, he still rejected the resurrection of Jesus because he felt there was not sufficient evidence for the reliability the event. He listed what he considered to be sufficient evidence. At the top of the list was video of the event. If we could produce video of the resurrection of Jesus, this skeptic would be tempted to believe. Besides the obvious absurdity of this criterion, this criterion is not now, nor ever has been a criterion used by historians to determine ancient history. It is an instance of the logical fallacy "Special Pleading." It is a criterion which is set up with the sole purpose of rejecting the claim at hand, a claim the skeptic does not like, but is never used to evaluate other events of the period. By the way, I did track him down and asked him, via e-mail, if he might not be suspicious of a video claiming to be 2,000 years old. I did not receive a reply.
These guidelines may seem elementary, but the amount of time I have spent discussing them is unbelievable. I remember one occasion, in reference to the first guideline; a skeptic asked the question "Why do we need to have criteria that can be met?" In other words, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 lets in any and all data as evidence and 10 allows the least and only very best data as evidence, this skeptic wanted to contrive a criterion that would allow no evidence. Of course this is not how historical investigation is done. But it does show the lengths that some will go to in order not to give an extraordinary claim a fair hearing.
Let's consider the second possibility -- the possibility that another kind of evidence is needed. What other kind of evidence is there that we don't already take advantage of in normal investigations? What would this evidence look like? In historical investigations we now use the written accounts of events as evidence; what people say they saw, heard and experienced. We try to verify these things by looking for multiple testimonies to the same events. We look to see if friend, foe or unconcerned players confirm certain necessary aspects. We examine artifacts provided by archaeology to see if they can shed any light one way or another on the subject. Since the way we do historical investigation now requires that we appeal to what the witnesses say they sensed, is the skeptic suggesting that there is some other way besides the five senses for witnesses to know about events? Perhaps the skeptic is suggesting that witnesses use some method other than their senses as a basis for their conclusions.
If the skeptic's position is that a different kind of evidence is needed and he wants to be taken seriously, he needs to tell us what other kind of evidence there is and how we are to perceive it. He also needs to avoid the fallacy of special pleading in his explanation. I say the "fallacy" of special pleading, because in considering this question, from the skeptic's view, he assumes that not all special pleading is fallacious. I say that because the very act of asking for extraordinary evidence is indeed special pleading. He is asking us to set aside or add to the means and methods we use for ordinary events -- events his philosophy readily accepts -- and put in its place another set of means and methods to determine if extraordinary events actually happened --events that don't fit his philosophy. For the purpose of this paper we allow for it, but the skeptic needs to address the point and provide a sound reason for it. But let's proceed; let’s play pretend that he has a sound reason.
Finally, we look at the last possibility a greater quantity of evidence. If the skeptic asks for an extraordinary amount of evidence, there is an unexpected and underlying precondition that he is admitting, without knowing it. At the beginning of this article, there are two propositions that the skeptic in my dialog asserted 1) there is little or no evidence for the reliability of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus, and 2) extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Here is the question that we must ask: If it is indeed the case that there is little or no evidence to support the extraordinary claim in question, then why ask for extraordinary evidence? Why can't we use standard criteria and a baseline based on other established claims and show that there is a lack of evidence to support the claims? If there is a lack of evidence, then there is no need to demand extraordinary evidence. The chart below illustrates this point:
Let 0 on this chart represent no quality evidence at all. That is, no evidence that would pass a standard set of criteria. Let 10 represent the amount of quality evidence that would bring about virtual certainty in any matter. Let the light blue line represent our baseline. The baseline is the amount of quality evidence supporting other events of the same period that we accept as having occurred. The skeptic in my conversation maintains that there is little or no evidence for the resurrection (column A on the chart). He also asks that the commonly accepted line by which we judge there to be sufficient evidence (the baseline) be raised to require more evidence. Here is the point, if there is little or no evidence, instead of demanding the bar be raised to 7, 8 or even higher on the chart, the skeptic should offer to lower the bar to 3 or even 2, and show the person making the extraordinary claim how absurd his claim is. In requiring extraordinary evidence, the skeptic is unknowingly admitting that the amount of quality evidence in favor of the claim is minimally equal to that needed to affirm other events of the period (line B on our chart). Once again, if the amount of quality evidence does not at least hit the base line, then extraordinary evidence is not required, because the claim does not measure up to a normal evaluation of evidence; thus the demand for extraordinary evidence is superfluous.
A final thought -
In dealing with the question of whether or not extraordinary claims, like the example of the resurrection of Jesus, can be rationally affirmed, the skeptic in our opening dialog demands that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, such requestors are unable to objectively quantify or qualify the nature of the evidence he is requesting. If the nature of "extraordinary evidence" cannot be objectively quantified or qualified it cannot be a rational request.
Overall, we find that the requestor has done little but to side track, or avoid the real issue. In seeking to avoid the issue, the skeptic in my dialog has admitted, unwittingly, that the quality and quantity of evidence for the resurrection is sufficient for its rational affirmation. For, if the evidence wasn't sufficient, then the use of a standard criteria and baseline could and should be used to show the claim is not worthy of rational affirmation. It is only when an event meets the baseline with quality evidence that the question of more evidence could possibly come into play; and only then if the person requesting it can show an objective means of determining it.
To conclude let me just reiterate, that in principle it is impossible to objectively quantify or qualify “extraordinary evidence.” Since “extraordinary evidence” can’t be objectively quantified or qualified, it has NO scientific value and philosophically it is a meaningless statement.
So, what is extraordinary evidence? After many discussions on this topic I have concluded that what the skeptic is really asking for when he requests “extraordinary evidence” is more evidence than is available. However, it really doesn’t matter if new evidence is found, nor how much is found; for the skeptic, it can never reach his subjective bar of “extraordinary.” For the skeptic demanding “extraordinary evidence” we find that as the quality and quantity of evidence increases, the bar is raises by just a little more than the amount of evidence that exists. In other words, “extraordinary evidence” means whatever the skeptic wants it to mean; and a word that can mean anything, means nothing; or perhaps we can apply the words of Christopher Hitchens when the skeptic cannot offer an objective definition of what extraordinary evidence is, “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” The demand for extraordinary evidence can, therefore, be dismissed.
Let me also reiterate what was said at the beginning of this paper. This has not been an attempt to promote any miraculous event or a religious position. The skeptic can accept everything written in this paper and still be a skeptic. This paper has only shown that the statement, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is not based on logic, but on subjective likes and dislikes. It is a nonsense statement that is philosophically and scientifically unviable.