Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? Part 4

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In this fourth post of the series, we will examine a final reason why the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence fails as a paradigm for determining  burden of proof.  Mike Licona argues that even if we accept this maxim at face value, it still has intractable problems.

Let us suppose that I am mistaken on the above and that the maxim remains that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  We are challenged to define when the evidence may be said to be “extraordinary.”  This, of course, is a subjective endeavor, since what is extraordinary for one may not be enough for another.

Given the subjective nature of determining what constitutes extraordinary evidence, is there any way to make it more objective for historical hypotheses?  Licona thinks so: 

I would like to suggest that, given the paucity of data that often plagues many historical hypotheses, when a hypothesis fulfills all five criteria for the best explanation and outdistances competing hypotheses by a significant margin, that hypothesis may be said to have extraordinary evidence supporting it.

I would also like to call attention to the fact that the requirement for extraordinary evidence cuts both ways.  If a historian proposes a natural theory such as group hallucinations in order to account for the reports of the postresurrection appearances of Jesus to groups, he will be required to present a case for the possibility of group hallucinations.  Since modern psychology generally regards group hallucinations as highly improbable if not impossible, the assertion that group hallucinations account for the postresurrection appearances is an extraordinary claim and thus requires extraordinary evidence.

Anti-supernaturalist skeptics cannot wield the “extraordinary evidence” maxim as a weapon only against miracle claims, because to do so means abandoning historical methodology and instead, doing metaphysics.

Nontheist historians are not licensed to claim that a hypothesis that is terribly ad hoc or that strains the data beyond what it can bear should be preferred over a hypothesis with a supernatural element that meets every claim to historicity.  And those who feel compelled to do so indirectly admit the strength of the data in favor of a miracle.

The nontheist historian may reply that miracles are more unlikely than very rare natural occurrences and thus require a greater burden of proof than an unlikely hypothesis that accounts for the same data.  Accordingly any hypothesis involving an explanation, no matter how improbable or poorly evidenced, should be preferred over a hypothesis involving a miracle. . . . But how does the nontheist historian  know this?  Testimonies of God’s intervention in history occur with every claim to answered prayer.  Although many claims of God’s intervention could in reality be coincidence, many claims of coincidence could in reality be God’s intervention.  This is not to suggest that historians should assign a supernatural explanation when a natural one is available that is at least equally plausible.  I am instead challenging the notion that the historian’s default position is that we live in a world where God does not intervene.

In summary, Licona argues that even if we do require extraordinary evidence for a historical event, we should adhere to a historical methodology which follows the evidence to the best explanation.  Ruling out miracle accounts a priori is not part of historical methodology; it is just a failure to leave one’s metaphysical biases aside and conduct a truly objective investigation of the evidence.

7 thoughts on “Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? Part 4”

  1. Are many historians offering group hallucinations as an explanation? If one person claims that 500 people witnessed something, the historian only needs to account for that one claim, not 500.

    When Licona mentions a natural explanation that is ‘as plausible as a supernatural one’, how is he making the comparison? Does he have any examples of proven supernatural events? Given the absence of any documented supernatural events, I’d say a natural explanation would have to be extremely unlikely before it became the least plausible out of two scenarios.

  2. I’d also ask anyone on Licona’s side if they’d approve of the supernatural being introduced as a factor in law courts. Is there any crime someone could be accused of where his defence team could not claim a supernatural alternative? Think about it. Law courts’ standards of evidence depends on natural laws remaining constant, without supernatural intervention. Is this a bad system or a good one?

  3. Some extraordinary claims can be found in the Guinness Book of World Records, yet most of us accept these claims without extraordinary evidence. Even when such claims are investigated by Guinness, the evidence they acquire isn’t extraordinary. Example:

    Extraordinary claim: A woman (Jeanne Calment) reaches 122 years old.

    Evidence: Her birth certificate, marriage license, some census reports and record of daughter’s birth.

    This is good evidence but not extraordinary evidence like the claim is, yet skeptics are likely to accept the claim.

    Skeptics such as atheists even said that if they merely witnessed a miracle in front of their eyes (i.e. a human walking on lukewarm water) they would believe the miracle transpired. Yet, for the skeptic to simply rely on his sense of vision is hardly extraordinary evidence. One can argue that the explanation that the skeptic was seeing things/hallucinating is more probable than a miracle, yet for the skeptic, he would believe the miracle took place by simply relying on his sense of vision, which isn’t extraordinary evidence. Thus you don’t need extraordinary evidence to believe in extraordinary claims.

  4. No, Anon, The Guinness Book of Records is very stringent with its demands for evidence. In fact, claims of great age are rejected by the publishers all the time due to lack of evidence. Thus your analogy fails.

  5. Being old doesn’t defy scientific knowledge. See the difference? Miracles do.

    “Her birth certificate, marriage license, some census reports and record of daughter’s birth.” are sufficient to prove her claim. She is on the upper edge of a spectrum of ages people die at. She happens to be the oldest confirmed case according to Guinness.

    “Thus you don’t need extraordinary evidence to believe in extraordinary claims”

    Indeed, one needn’t any evidence to believe a claim. But that does not mean they should.

  6. Andrew,
    You are perfectly illustrating the intractable problem with the maxim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It is a useless rhetorical device and nothing more.

    The problem is its subjectivity. One person considers it to be extraordinary for a person to live 122 years and another doesn’t. One person considers the evidence for Jeanne Calment’s age to be ordinary, and another claims the evidence is extraordinary. Round and round we go with no end in sight.

    I doubt that skeptics will ever stop slinging this maxim around because it is so rhetorically punchy, but as a statement that helps us get to the truth, it is truly useless.

  7. It’s not subjective, and I already explained why. Longevity exists on a bell curve, with some people being at the outer edge. Someone had to be the oldest person, and it happened to be her, by a few months – Jeanne Calment lived five years longer than the previous record holder. Not 50 years or 500 years. Five.

    To draw a comparison between a person living five years longer than the previous record holder, and a person walking on water, is absurd. The former is being on the outer edge of a bell curve on human longevity, the other is breaking the laws of physics as we know them.

    There’s nothing about living to 122 that forces us to radically re-think what we know about anything. It’s just a slight extension of known longevity, and it’s actually an expected one given that longevity has gradually increased over time.

    “and another claims the evidence is extraordinary”

    No-one said that “her birth certificate, marriage license, some census reports and record of daughter’s birth” counts as ‘extraordinary evidence’. I said that it was sufficient and that the Book’s demands are ‘stringent’, and that many other claims have failed to meet the standard. In fact ‘Anon’s list of proof of age is not exhaustive – there is plenty other evidence, including photos of Calment in the 19th Century and early 20th Century. It is said that her life was highly documented, with more proof of her age being recorded than any other case of super-centenarian.

    No-one has explained a) why it’s not sufficient, b) what WOULD be sufficient and c) why the claim is extraordinary in the first place.

Comments are closed.