Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 2 of this series, we started discussing Mike Licona’s analysis of Sagan’s Saw, as he calls it.  Licona offered two examples of his wife coming home from the grocery store and telling him about people she met there.  We saw that even if she told him about the extraordinary event of meeting the president of the United States, he would not require extraordinary evidence to believe her.

But how would he react if his wife told him about meeting a person that he doubts even exists?

Now let us suppose that my wife returns from the grocery store and tells me she saw and spoke with an alien.  In this instance, I have a serious tension between the evidence, which may be good, and my understanding of reality.  Should I reject the evidence or adjust my understanding of reality?

Let us also suppose that my neighbor then telephones and provides a report similar to my wife’s.  I then turn on the television and observe a number of reports of alien sightings presently taking place around the world.  If I am satisfied that the sources are credible and I am secure in my understanding of authorial intent, I may still pause, since I presently regard the existence of aliens as dubious.  But I should then reexamine my reasons for believing in the nonexistence of aliens in light of the evidence before me that they do. Perhaps I would be less hasty to reject all of the reports of alien sightings.  I should not require extraordinary evidence but additional evidence that addresses my present understanding of reality or my horizon, which may be handicapped and in need of revision.

Licona’s worldview is such that he doubts that aliens exist, but he must look more critically at that worldview given the evidence that aliens do exist.  Perhaps his worldview is wrong and it needs to be revised.  Licona argues that

The worldview of one historian does not place a greater burden on the shoulders of others.  It is the responsibility of the historian to consider what the evidence would look like if she were not wearing her metaphysical bias like a pair of sunglasses that shade the world.  It is not the responsibility of the evidence to shine so brightly that they render such glasses ineffectual.

With regard to miracle accounts,

If the evidence for the occurrence of a particular miracle is strong—that is, the historian can establish that the authorial intent of the sources is to report what was perceived as a miracle, the event occurred in a context that was charged with religious significance, the report possesses traits that favor the historicity of the event and no plausible naturalistic theories exist—then a requirement for extraordinary evidence is unwarranted.

Some historians may require additional evidence supporting supernaturalism before believing since the event is foreign to their present [worldview], but no greater burden of proof is required for a miracle-claim.  There is a difference between demonstrating the historical superiority of a hypothesis and convincing a particular historian to give up a deeply held view.

Licona summarizes:

[Sagan’s saw] fails since only additional evidence is required and that by certain historians for whom the conclusion challenges their horizon.  We observed that the evidence is not responsible for satisfying the biases of the historian; rather, the historian is responsible for setting aside his biases and considering the evidence.

In an extended footnote, Licona also looks at why Sagan’s Saw would fail even if we accepted its truth.  We will cover that material in part 4 of the series.

  • There are reports all the time that people have seen aliens. Many people claim to have actually been abducted and taken into spaceships. Perhaps these people’s spouses do believe them. But for the rest of us, skepticism is the general response. And if all the sightings were only written up decades after the event, and from anonymous authors, then you’d expect even greater skepticism.

  • Boz

    OP said: “I should not require extraordinary evidence but additional evidence”

    These two phrases mean the same thing, under bayesian inference. ‘extraordinary evidence’ just means ‘strong evidence’. strong evidence might be the accumulation of many moderate pieces of evidence, or just one piece of evidence which is strong on its own.

    It seems like we actually agree, but terminology is causing a miscommunication. Avoiding the e-word, would you agree that “unlikely claims require strong evidence” ?

  • Licona said: “[Sagan’s saw] fails since only additional evidence is required and that by certain historians for whom the conclusion challenges their horizon. We observed that the evidence is not responsible for satisfying the biases of the historian; rather, the historian is responsible for setting aside his biases and considering the evidence.”

    That is what I agree with. The word “unlikely” is still somewhat subjective and worldview dependent. The miracles that Jesus performed are not unlikely to me, given the religous context and the existence of the Christian God. For you, his miracles may be unlikely because of your differing worldview. Licona seems to be saying that you want some additional evidence to back up Jesus’s miracles because of your worldview, but you should not demand extraordinary evidence. You need to consider the evidence that is there and consider that your worldview needs to be adjusted.

  • Todd

    If my wife, a neighbor, and the news all reported that there have been recent sightings of aliens; I would be skeptical, but the plausibility of aliens, the trust in my wife’s sanity, and the common coincidence of several sightings would lead me to examine additional evidence.

    Unfortunately, this is a hypothetical scenario that does not correlate to the evidence we have of Jesus or the reality in which we live. For Jesus, his miracles were not corroborated by any reliable source, there are no firsthand accounts of his miracles, the accounts found in the bible are sometimes contradictory, and the written evidence has admittedly been translated, tampered with and edited for content. Couple that with the implausibility (impossibility actually) of the supernatural and I am quite comfortable saying that my wife meeting an alien at Harris Teeter is far more likely than Jesus being resurrected.

  • There are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s miracles captured in the sources behind the New Testament. Virtually every historical scholar agrees that Jesus’s contemporaries viewed him as a wonder-worker. How he performed these wonders is up for debate, but the fact that he was a man who people saw performing amazing feats is undisputed by scholarship.

    I think that for you, because you deny the supernatural is even possible, no amount of evidence would ever suffice. You would always go with the natural explanation, no matter how poor of an explanation it is, I think. Even extraordinary evidence would not suffice.

  • Boz

    Again avoiding the e-word, would you agree that “uncommon claims require strong evidence” ?

  • I think that historical claims require historical evidence. I think Licona has carefully laid out a methodology and criteria which can be used to judge whether a historical event probably occurred. I am very uncomfortable with a term like “strong.” There is still plenty of room for subjectivity with that term.

    For an atheist who is strongly wed to his worldview, the evidence for the resurrection will never be “strong” enough.