Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? Yah

So it is time for another blog post discussing the nature of evidence and, as is always the case with me, this has been prompted by something I saw on Youtube. The other day I came across a video entitled “Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? Nah” by Christian apologist Mike Winger, and I have to say it really rubbed me the wrong way. I would advise you watch it for yourself and come to your own opinion, but to me it very much came across as though Mike were intentionally misunderstanding the point of this common skeptical saying in order to avoid applying its implications to his own beliefs. Mike has an extraordinary claim that he wants to defend, in this case that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, and seems completely set against the idea that people would want to apply high standards of evidence to this claim before accepting it. Indeed, he even asserts that the idea that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is not about standards of evidence, but rather “is often used to keep people from following evidence to things they simply don’t want to believe in or things that they don’t already believe in“. So with this in mind I am going to take a look at this famous phrase, break down what it actually means, and try to address some of the questions Mike asks in his video. Oh, and I feel I should also mention that this video is around two years old now, so this isn’t exactly going to be what you would call a hot take.

While I don’t really want to focus on how Mike presented his case, and instead focus on this questions, I do want to touch on how he opened his video, as I think it makes clear why the whole thing bothered me so much. He opens by discussing where the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” comes from, and he mentions Carl Sagan (who coined the phrase), Christopher Hitchens (who regularly used it in reference to God), and David Hume (who’s work formed the basis of the idea). He then proceeds to denigrate all three of them by asserting that what the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” means is, and I quote:

The idea that you can just ignore and dismiss claims that you feel are ridiculous or extraordinary or outside your own worldview, you can just kind of chuck those and not even seriously consider the evidence, because there’s just never enough.

Now if, like me, you value things like truth, and evidence, and integrity, and have also used this phrase as a shorthand for why we need to apply rigorous and consistent standards of evidence when investigating unusual claims, then I am sure this characterization of our position as “you just don’t want to believe so you chuck the evidence away” might just have raised your heckles a bit. Mike goes on to say that this “your evidence is not good enough” reading of the phrase is something he encounters frequently when discussing God, Jesus, and the resurrection with nonbelievers. But rather than consider the possibility that his evidence might actually be lacking, he instead sees it as an indication that something “fishy” is going on, and that the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” phrase is just being used to “throw away good evidence, or throw away good reasoning, or subvert your normal processes of evaluating things to see if they’re true“. And so, with the well more poison than actual water at this point, Mike then moves on some questions he asked on twitter, the first of which is as follows:

Two questions for those who say “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”
1- What exactly qualifies a claim as extraordinary?
2 – What exactly qualifies evidence as extraordinary?
Please be as precise as possible. Thank you
11:58 PM – 25 Apr 2019 @MikeWingerii

Now, ignoring how Mike expects anyone to be “precise” in 280 characters, I want to take some time to lay out my answer to these questions in order to actually do them justice. As I hopefully made clear above, Mike’s view of what this phrase actually means, and the place he is coming from when asking these questions, is rather far off the mark, and so the questions themselves are actually somewhat malformed. And so, before answering them, we need to take a step back and look at what “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” actually means. Let’s start simply shall we (and I apologies if this all seems a bit condescending, but it seems some people really don’t get this).

I went for a walk today and saw a dog.

There, I have made a claim, and, unless you are feeling particularly contrary, I am sure you would agree that it is an “ordinary” claim. But why is it an “ordinary” claim? Well, to put it simply, everything in the claim is entirely reasonable, completely consistent with our everyday experiences, and well supported by a mountain of evidence. We know that people go for walks, we have likely done so ourselves, and we see other people doing so all the time. There is therefore nothing unreasonable about the claim that I went for a walk, and nothing about me doing so is inconsistent with our everyday experiences. Likewise, the same applies to me seeing a dog. We know dogs are a thing, many of us have dogs, and even if we don’t we have probably seen one at some point. We also have well documented scientific evidence about dogs, and, again even if we haven’t seen it all ourselves, we most likely all know things like “dogs are mammals” and “dogs were domesticated from wolves“. Me having seen a dog is also an entirely reasonable thing to have happened, and again completely consistent with our everyday experiences.

So, now that we have established why me seeing a dog is an “ordinary” claim, ask yourself what it would take for you to believe me? Chances are the claim itself is enough. I mean could be lying, but there is nothing about the claim itself to indicate that, and you are not forced to fundamentally change any views you hold about the world by accepting the claim at face value. At most you might ask some follow up questions to get some more details, but it is likely you would do that out of interest, rather than as a way to evaluate the legitimacy of my claim. No, like most people, you would just accept the claim, because it is an “ordinary” claim, and therefore an “ordinary” level of evidence is enough for you to believe it. Right, but how about this?

I went for a walk today and saw a dragon.

Again, I have made a claim, but this time it is not so straight forward. You would probably have some clarifying questions to start with, and lets say I answer those by asserting that I mean a living, fire breathing, flying, lizard like creature, the size of a double decker bus, swooping up and down the high street. Is this an “ordinary” claim? Is it something that is reasonable to believe? Is it something that is consistent with our everyday experience? Or is it something for which we already have a mountain of evidence confirming that this sort of event can and does take place? Well no, it’s not a reasonable thing to believe, it is outside of our everyday experiences, and there is no confirming evidence to back up this being something that happens. The claim is outside of the ordinary, it is beyond the ordinary, it is, to pick a word completely off the top of my head, extraordinary.

So now ask yourself what sort of evidence would you need to believe me? Would my claim alone be enough this time? Would you just take my word for it and go about your day? No, you wouldn’t, but why wouldn’t you? Well, to paraphrase David Hume, it is much more reasonable, and consistent with your experience and the evidence, to believe that I am either lying to you, or have been fooled in some way, than it is to believe that a real, honest to goodness, dragon is flying around outside. My claim is not enough. So what evidence would you need? Well in this case I think that is fairly simple to answer, you would need to see it for yourself. You would need to be presented with a level of evidence so convincing that it would override the fact that the claim is not reasonable, that it is not consistent with your everyday experience, and that it is not supported by evidence. Yes, the act of seeing the dragon itself is exactly the same as the act of seeing any other thing in existence, but in the context of how we are using the words “ordinary” and “extraordinary” here, seeing the dragon would be the “extraordinary” evidence required to back up the “extraordinary” claim.

To sum up, and to actually answer Mike’s questions.

“What exactly qualifies a claim as extraordinary?”

Ordinary claims are those that are:

1) entirely reasonable to believe
2) consistent with our everyday experience
3) supported by a large amount of confirming evidence

Extraordinary claims are those that are:

1) NOT entirely reasonable to believe
2) NOT consistent with our everyday experience
3) NOT supported by a large amount of confirming evidence

“What exactly qualifies evidence as extraordinary?”

Ordinary evidence is the amount of evidence required to accept claims that are:

1) entirely reasonable to believe
2) consistent with our everyday experience
3) supported by a large amount of confirming evidence

Extraordinary evidence is the amount of evidence required to accept claims that are:

1) NOT entirely reasonable to believe
2) NOT consistent with our everyday experience
3) NOT supported by a large amount of confirming evidence

Laying it out like this I think it is fairly obvious that when people say “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” what is meant is that the evidence presented needs to be commensurate to the claim being made. If a claim is reasonable, consistent with everyday experience, and backed up by evidence, then an “ordinary” amount of evidence is required to support this “ordinary” claim. But if it is none of those things, if it goes against what is reasonable to believe, is not consistent with our everyday experiences, and flies in the face of the evidence, then it will require “extraordinary” evidence before we should accept the “extraordinary” claim. Oh, and as you can clearly see, I am using the word “extraordinary” in an entirely consistent way here, something Mike repeatedly accuses skeptics of not doing throughout his video.

Right, now that we know what we are talking about when we use the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“, lets unpack Mike’s second question.

Still trying to get clarity. Dear “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” people, assuming the resurrection of Jesus really happened in the 1st century what are a couple examples of “extraordinary” evidence we can reasonably expect to find today to build the case?
4:08 PM – 26 Apr 2019 @MikeWingerii

Firstly, can we all agree that, using the definitions I laid out above, the claim that the “resurrection of Jesus really happened in the 1st century” is an extraordinary one? People coming back from being dead for three days is not a reasonable thing to just accept, it does go against our everyday experience of people staying dead once they die, and it is not supported by a large amount of confirming evidence. Heck, even using Mike’s own standards, he calls the resurrection of Jesus a “miracle“, something that is literally defined as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs“. So it is an extraordinary claim, and as such this fact alone means it does require extraordinary evidence before we should accept it, again using the definition described above.

But what would that evidence look like? Well, before we go to Jesus, lets think about what we would need in order to accept a resurrection happened today. Lets say I tell you that “Elvis Presley resurrected from the dead this morning“, what evidence would you need to believe that happened? Firstly, would my claim that it happened be enough for you to believe it? Probably not, I mean again, using Hume’s maxim, it is much more likely I am either lying or mistaken than it is that Elvis is alive and walking around once more. Ok, so what if you saw it on TV, and heard other people claiming to have seen Elvis walking around alive, would that convince you? Well, it would probably have you wondering what was going on, and maybe checking to see if it was April 1st, but still you probably wouldn’t believe it, as it would require you to abandon so many other things you already believe about the world, things that are reasonable, consistent with your everyday experience, and supported by evidence. Ok, so lets pull out the big guns.

A group of well known and respected scientists come on the TV and announce that they have just finished running all the tests they can think of on resurrected Elvis and they are completely convinced that it is him. They tested his DNA and it is a 100% match to all available samples. They confirmed that his grave is now empty, and that CCTV cameras recorded Elvis crawling his way out of it and then followed him every step of the way to the science lab where the experiments took place. They even worked out how it happened, pointing to numerous published papers and known facts about science that would allow Elvis to have come back from the dead. They then bring Elvis on and he spends the next few hours answering questions while the TV displays pictures of Elvis beside him so that people can clearly see that they match. Finally, you go out and meet him face to face and he tells you that he is in fact the real, original Elvis Presley back from the dead.

Would you believe it?

Now some of you would, but some of you would still have your doubts, after all isn’t it more reasonable to think that this Elvis is a clone than that he actually came back from the dead? But either way I think we can all agree that we would require at least this level of evidence before we accepted that the person standing before us was actually the original Elvis Presley resurrected from the dead. And that is if it happened today. What if, rather than Elvis coming back to life today, it was Queen Victoria, who died in 1901, who came back to life in the 1930s? Would you require any less evidence to accept Victoria’s resurrection than you would require to accept Elvis’? Would the fact that it took place before you were born, and before the vast majority of the scientific tests required to confirm her identify existed make you lower your requirements for accepting it happened? Would peoples claims to have seen Queen Victoria alive, and perhaps some photographs, be enough for you to accept it just because that was the best people could offer? After all claim being made hasn’t really changed, it is still, using our definition, an extraordinary one. Should we just accept ordinary evidence because that is all we have?

Now lets go back two thousand years and address Mike’s question.

“assuming the resurrection of Jesus really happened in the 1st century what are a couple examples of “extraordinary” evidence we can reasonably expect to find today to build the case?”

Simple answer, none.

To accept the resurrection of someone today we would expect at least three things:

1) Confirmation that the person was actually alive at some point
2) Confirmation that they most definitely did die
3) Confirmation that they most definitely were alive at some point after they definitely did die

I am totally willing to grant the first two things for Jesus. He was alive at some point and he died. But what evidence, sorry I meant “extraordinary” evidence, do we have to support the last point? All we have are the claims of people saying that Jesus came back from the dead, and the fact that people believed those claims and changed their lives as a result. Do we have scientific evidence to back up this claim? No. It is reasonable for us to expect any? No. Do we have photos? No. Is it reasonable for us to expect any? No. Are we able to directly investigate the physically risen Jesus ourselves? No. It is reasonable to expect to be able to? No. This is the kind of evidence we would need, and yet in no way is it reasonable to expect to find this evidence two thousand years later.

Ask yourself this, would the earnest claim that someone came back from the dead today be:

1) entirely reasonable to believe
2) consistent with our everyday experience
3) supported by a large amount of confirming evidence

If the answer is no, then the answer is still no when applied to the same claim made two thousand years in the past, regardless of how many people believe that claim today. All the evidence we have for the resurrection of Jesus is ordinary, and yet the claim is extraordinary. As such the only honest and reasonable thing to do is to say “I am sorry, but there is not enough evidence available to accept this extraordinary claim“. Anything less would be applying a different standard of evidence to this “extraordinary” claim that is actually warranted.

So Mike, the answer to your question is I would not expect to reasonably find any extraordinary evidence for the resurrection of Jesus today. But that is not a problem with me being unreasonable or inconsistent, it is a problem with the claim being made.

I want to end by touching on something else Mike referenced in this video that again demonstrates how much he wants to dismiss the idea that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” in order to hold onto his beliefs. Almost half an hour into the discussion he present a syllogism that he claimed represents the way that skeptics use this phrase. It goes like this:

The Argumentum Sagani

1) Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
2) The claim that a miracle has occurred is extraordinary

Therefore,
3) Any evidence supporting it ought to be extraordinary as well
4) I’m not sure what I mean by “extraordinary”
5) But whatever you come up with, it’s not going to work

Therefore,
6) No one is justified in believing any miracle claim

Now as I have shown I, and most skeptics I know, do know what they mean by “extraordinary“, and if you can’t provide the level of evidence required to accept things that are NOT entirely reasonable to believe, NOT consistent with our everyday experience, and NOT supported by a large amount of confirming evidence, then that is your problem, and not a good enough reason for the rest of us to lower our standards of evidence and just believe you.

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