Carl Sagan is most noted for speaking the phrase, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ (begins at 0:40s in the video above). The statement seems at first thought to be true. But is it really? Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?
Atheistic philosopher Stephen Law believes it might, since he used the phrase as his first premise against the resurrection of Jesus (and although he does not endorse the argument he presents, he thinks it has “some prima facie plausibility”). Read Law’s published article here.
Let’s take a look at why the phrase is troublesome.
The trouble with the first part is that we’re not quite certain what precisely are extraordinary claims. Lots of people might point to the physical resurrection of Jesus as being an extraordinary claim. After all, it is a very unusual event (if true). But as evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa points out in his article in Psychology Today:
The problem with the dictum is that there are no absolute criteria for what counts as “extraordinary claims.” In particular, what counts as extraordinary depends entirely on what you know and believe. In the extreme case, if you know nothing, then everything is an extraordinary claim. As the comedian Elayne Boosler used to quip, “Popcorn is magic if you don’t know how it happens.”
Again, whether a claims is extraordinary or not depends entirely upon what you know and believe. Put nicely above, if you know nothing, then everything is an extraordinary claim. And for people who believe that a god, any god, exists and can do supernatural things, it wouldn’t be so outrageous that this god raise a person from the dead. Therefore, the first part of the phrase seems to lack clear condition as to what is an extraordinary claim.
The second part of the phrase is also troublesome. For what precisely counts as extraordinary evidence? Any thing that could be brought forth as “extraordinary evidence” would, in actuality, just be ordinary evidence. Evidence is simply the available facts or data about any given proposition. Therefore, referring to some evidence as “extraordinary” is redundant. It also is subjective. Person A may think that evidence x categorizes as extraordinary evidence but person B may just consider it as ordinary evidence. So once again, how are we to define what qualifies as extraordinary? Like the first part of the phrase, the second part seems to lack clear understanding of what constitutes as extraordinary evidence.
Let’s take a look at a few examples to see how this supposed maxim fails. For all of these examples, I will grant that there are such things as extraordinary claims.
1. Consider J.W. Wartick’s example: Suppose I were to claim that I am “a giant pink salamander.” What type of evidence must be required to verify this extraordinary claim? Well, ordinary evidence of course! I could post pictures or videos, even have people come over to look at me or take some DNA samples. All these types of evidence are ordinary types of evidence.
2. Consider people who win the lottery. Winning the lottery is so highly improbable that you’re 50 times more likely to be struck by lightning. No joke. So when a person comes forward to say that they’ve won the lottery, should we ask them, ‘What type of extraordinary evidence do you have to prove that you have won?’ Looking like a deer in headlines, they’d probably respond by saying, ‘All I have is this ticket and receipt!’
3. Consider UFO encounter stories. What type of evidence would they have to provide to prove that they saw an alien space craft. We all have seen some of that sketchy footage. But what about the space craft itself? Extraordinary evidence! Right? Well why think that? As mentioned above, calling it extraordinary seems subjective (certainly subjective from the perspective of the aliens). Additionally, it is unnecessary. Making a judgment about what is or is not ordinary appears to conflict with science’s fundamental purpose of observation. It seems that some scientists may struggle to keep their ontology and epistemology in check before they put on the lab coat.
4. Now consider the physical resurrection of a body, any body (much less a guy who says he’s divine and works miracles to prove it). The resurrection of a body seems so extraordinary. After all, people die and stay dead (generally) all the time. Now suppose I were to tell you my Uncle Tom was resurrected from the dead. What would you say is required of me to prove to you that he was? Film would be nice. But what about meeting the doctor who pronounced him dead, the mortician who was about to cut open his body, and Uncle Tom himself?! Neither film nor meeting people is extraordinary. It’s just ordinary. Those types of evidence are simply a part of the available set of facts or data.
Given these four examples, at this juncture it’s safe to see why the phrase, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ falls short of being true. The proposition appears to be more like rhetoric than reason.
But let’s suppose you just can’t bring yourself to think that Uncle Tom was resurrected. There must be some other scientific explanation for how it happen. Either way, it may not contradict against some people’s views of how God does miracles. In response to those who think there must be a scientific answer, consider this: just as people die and stay dead, so too people lose the lottery and continue to lose the lottery. Very highly improbable events do occur, and this appears to disprove the proposition, ‘Resurrection from the dead is impossible,’ or at least illustrate that we ought to be agnostic on the matter.
In Humean speak, some people think that if an event is so highly improbable to have occurred that we must be skeptical of the testimony we encounter. But given the example of lottery winners we know of instances where highly improbably events do occur, and very often, in fact! Perhaps what most resurrection skeptics fail to consider is the evidence surrounding the proposition in question. As Bayesian probability theorists like to point out, we must consider the probability of the evidence we have, had the proposition in question not occurred. In this regard, William Lane Craig writes, ‘In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?'” The probability of those things, among other historical facts, occurring had the resurrection not happened seem to be more improbable than the probability that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Do we need extraordinary evidence to prove it? No, just ordinary evidence. And the ordinary evidence we have takes shape in the form of written accounts from the first century. Given certain other propositions I take to be true in addition to the probabilities of alternative hypotheses to the resurrection hypothesis, I think it more probable to believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead.