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.