Post Author: Bill Pratt
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I cannot count how many times skeptics of Christianity have trotted out this statement when conversing with me, usually in the context of Jesus’s miracles and resurrection.
There are many possible responses to this statement, but in this four-part series of posts, I want to present responses from William Lane Craig and Mike Licona. First, William Lane Craig.
This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims.
Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. 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?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.
Let me restate Craig’s claim here. He is basically saying that if we actually employed this criteria across the board, we would have to rule out all kinds of claims that we all believe are true. Extraordinary and improbable events happen all the time, and we usually do not have extraordinary evidence for these events.
A simple example is Alexander the Great’s extraordinary conquests. Everyone agrees it happened, but we have no documentation of it until centuries after it occurred. Is documentation hundreds of years afterward enough to know what happened? Most people seem to think so. Is this level of documentation extraordinary? It doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary. So should we say Alexander’s conquests never happened? Obviously not, so that means this criteria is far too restrictive, and is, therefore, not useful.
The better question to ask is this: “Given the evidence for an extraordinary event, what is the probability we would have that evidence if the event had not occurred?”
We will next look at Mike Licona’s detailed analysis of this skeptical maxim. Stay here!