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Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?

January 13, 2014

Some time back I went to La Trobe university and presented on the topic ‘Why I love Richard Dawkins, but am not an atheist’. In this talk I spoke a lot about evidence and point to the evidence for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This talk often stimulates lively and worthwhile question/discussion time.

I enjoyed discussing this topic with one particular person who challenged my presentation on the ‘evidence’ for a resurrection from the dead. As a part of his challenge he used a fairly familiar and popular test for assessing evidence: ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. This quote originated with Carl Sagan and has become quite popular in assessing ‘extraordinary’ claims. I even noticed the ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ was featured in a recent Arthur episode (assessing whether giant worms were going to attack the neighborhood).

I initially accepted Sagan’s test as legitimate and I then proceeded to share why I felt the evidence for the historicity of the resurrection was extraordinary, but upon further reflection I’m not so sure I’d be so quick to accept this test as legitimate.

Whilst I do think that the evidence supporting the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (and the historical reliability of the New Testament) is quite extraordinary – the very fact that we’re still talking about the enduring influence of a Galilean itinerant preacher who lived 2000 years ago seems extraordinary to me. But as I reflected on the claim, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ I’m more and more convinced that this is misleading.

It’s misleading because it creates a subjective category when assessing evidence, i.e. ‘extraordinary’. How extraordinary is extraordinary? How do you measure ‘extraordinaryness’? In our discussion this was made clear when I asked, ‘well, what evidence would convince you?’ I was left with no satisfactory answer. The questioner had no clear idea of what would constitute ‘extraordinary’ evidence to accept the resurrection of a person from the dead. It almost seems to me that this claim is used  as an excuse to not accept the evidence that is rallied to support a miraculous claim (notably the resurrection of the dead). It seems to me this way because no evidence will ever be extraordinary enough to convince someone that a dead person came back to life again.

I would suggest a better statement would be ‘extraordinary claims require evidence’. If there is evidence for a particular event, then that evidence needs to be acknowledged, weighed, and considered. I don’t think the evidence necessarily needs to be ‘extraordinary’ – it just needs to be reliable. If the evidence for an extraordinary claim is adjudged ‘reliable’ then the extraordinary claim should be accepted.

I would go on to suggest that the evidence we have for the resurrection of Jesus is in fact reliable and hence this is why I accept this quite extraordinary claim.

This post originally appeared on the now unused City Bible Forum Melbourne blog.

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From → Bible, Comment, Philosophy

4 Comments
  1. This is just silly, of course extraordinary claims require stronger evidence than mundane claims. Would you accept the same amount of evidence to the claims of “I have a pet dog” and “I have a pet unicorn”?

    • Erm, I think I would. What evidence would satisfy you that I have a pet unicorn? Surely it would be visiting and showing you the animal wouldn’t it. I think the burden of evidence would be the same in each. That illustrates my point precisely – there is nothing extraordinary about that particular ‘type’ of evidence. It’s just reliable evidence that matters.

      • I think I would want to inspect a unicorn in person much more carefully than a dog.

      • Sure, but “inspecting” a unicorn is hardly extraordinary is it? (the inspecting part not the unicorn – I’d admit if you had a pet unicorn it would be extraordinary)

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