Miracles Require Extraordinary Evidence

In a recent post, the topic of the claim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" came up. Someone shared the following video where William Lane Craig tries to bash the concept.

Here is the original post, along with some other christian blogs that attack the idea.


The following nine points address some of my own observations on the idea and some of others.

1) The bible is not evidence. The bible is a book of claims. +Daniel L correctly states that "There is hearsay evidence written in Greek years after the supposed resurrection based on stories being told and repeated by followers of Jesus."

Although I would go a step further and say that the existence of those witnesses has not even been established.

The lottery numbers are each improbable

In the video above, Craig mentions this. It is true, and if someone told me that my number had won, I would want evidence of that. I would need good confirmation before I quit my job and buy plane tickets to the Maldives. I've supposedly won the UK lottery three times already mind you. Where Craig goes wrong is that even though each number is improbable, the appearance of random numbers on television every week is not.

2) Craig is not addressing Sagan AT ALL in the video. He subtly switches out a term in the statement

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"

to make it

"Extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence"

Someone might forgive a lay person for the switch in terms, but Craig is smart and he has an agenda. He promotes a _*claim* that an event occurred_ to an _actual event_ , betraying his presupposition and trying to sneak it into the discussion. I don't think Hume ever uttered that statement. This is what Hume said:
"The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.”
Hume's language is quite archaic, but it certainly cannot be accurately condensed into Craig's oversimplification. His whole mention of the principle is a huge straw man misrepresenting Hume and Sagan.

3) If the principle "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is to be rejected, we would be forced for the sake of consistency to believe every miracle claim from history with the same amount of evidence. Muhammad flew into heaven on a winged horse, the Oracle of Delphi was a divine prophet, Achilles was the son of a sea nymph. We would be stuck with a reality full of contradictory supernatural claims with no way to distinguish true ones from false ones.

4) The second person in the video claims that Hume's argument is circular, but fails to represent Hume's position accurately. If experience is a type of evidence, the lack of experience we have of miracles outweighs any experiential evidence of their occurrence being reported second hand. If miracles were commonplace we wouldn't have the problem of accepting that they did in fact happen in history.

5) This particular speaker's second argument is that the universe does not conform to such principles. That is true. I could see something immensely improbable happening, and try to tell everyone about it. They would not believe me, but it is still true. It is not about what is true and what is not true, it is about how we should rationally decide when to believe something. When you apply a rule for belief on one belief, you must apply it equally to all others. If you make exceptions, those exceptions must be consistent with another rational rule. Epistemic principles like the one Sagan expresses don't make absolute claims about reality, they just offer a guideline of when it is rational to believe something.

6) At the end of the video the author of the video cuts when his favoured speaker finishes what he has to say. The rebuttal to that last bit is never heard. We are left to wonder what the other person said, who was putting forward good arguments up to the point where he was cut off. This was either an editing trick, or maybe the original video ends there abruptly. The chances or misrepresentation by omission render that part of the video useless.

7) Carl Sagan manages to distill a powerful tenet of science into a single statement. This is good, but single statements are not meant to defend themselves against one sided videos that last  7 minutes. The statement was also meant as communication to lay persons, not to Craig and other eager apologists who hate reason with such a passion.  don't understand the application of reason without motivated reasoning to a predecided conclusion.

8) Another tactic to attempt to refute extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is the road runner tactic. Apparently the statement represents an extraordinary claim, so where is the extraordinary evidence for it? It is not a claim as such, it is an epistemic guideline. It can be tested by negations. I will present the original statement plus it's negations, consider the outcome of each and consider which one is more extraordinary in itself:
Original: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Negation 1: Extraordinary claims don't require extraordinary evidence.
Negation 2. Ordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

When considering each of these possibilities it is obvious after some reflection that both negations are absurd. If extraordinary claims could be accepted by ordinary evidence not only would science implode, so would the law courts. Bayesian probability would not be useful. The claim that the guideline is in itself an extraordinary claim is absurd and extraordinary, just as its negations are. 

9) The other problem raised by carm.org and the other apologetics website mentioned above is that the demarcation between ordinary and extraordinary is arbitrary and subjective. It is certainly subjective, in the sense that things are considered ordinary if they can be said to be commonplace in the experience of the observer, but the demarcation is not. If some experience cannot be said to be common to human experience, it counts as extraordinary. If we were to travel through time to the middle ages for example, people of that time period would demand extraordinary evidence of the flying machines we claim to know for instance. Building a working aeroplane would prove the claim. Once sufficient evidence has been presented, a claim can pass into ordinary experience, at which point the sceptical subject can accept the claim and move on. It is not common for people to wake from being deceased after three days, in fact there are only few claims in history that this ever happened.

10) Many interesting events in history are extraordinary.
This is true. What is also true is that we possess extraordinary evidence of such events. Direct archaeological evidence, along with multiple accounts from neutral sources can establish historic facts. Even so, the way we treat historic facts are somewhat different to the way we treat scientific facts. Historic facts are often less well established than scientific facts. Details are often revised as evidence emerges. Some claims, like the existence of King Arthur or Ragnar Lodbrok are treated as unfactual due to the fact that their existence have not been established. Accounts of actual historical events are taken with a pinch of salt, because ancient accounts of events suffer from embellishment by their writers. On an epistemic scale, historical claims generally don't enjoy a confidence level nearly as high as scientific claims do.

In conclusion...

This is just another example of how christian apologists are willing to reject scientific concepts in order to promote their dogma. As I mentioned in point (3), rejecting the concept of extraordinary evidence puts us in a epistemic despair, stuck with an incoherent and irreconcilable reality. Christian apologists think that everything will be okay, because they will just cite the bible as the truth, without realising that their truth claims hold no more water than those of other religious believers. We would be stuck with relativism or ideological wars that can only be won through political force. The solution the apologist presents is to make a special case for their beliefs. Their beliefs are to be believed without the burden of an epistemic system that would exclude all other similar beliefs. Apologists whose work I am familiar with always apply strong scepticism to any claims except their own. This raises a serious red flag. Motivated reasoning perfectly explains this kind of behaviour, in concert with compartmentalisation of critical thinking and blind faith.

Apologists want to raise doubts about whether scientific modes of teasing out reality is valid, because those modes of thought specifically undermine their belief systems. By undermining it they undermine our sensible way of knowing the world. They unknowingly undermine their own position by opening the door for claimants of other belief systems to assert themselves with the same objections and arguments.

** EDIT: I refined this post a little and added another point. There may be more to come in the future! **

** EDIT: Replaced last paragraph because I don't know what I was thinking. Added 10.