Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

Note: This will be my last post until after the holidays. I look forward to responding to comments in a couple of weeks.

An online site called CARM—Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries—has posted an article titled “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.”
Victor Reppert’s Dangerous Idea blog linked with this site and a lively discussion followed. Since I have defended the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (I shall abbreviate this principle as ECREE), especially in my 1998 debate with William Lane Craig, I would like to add my comments on the piece.

The author (the essay is anonymous) recognizes that it is an uncontroversial principle of confirmation that a hypothesis that is initially very improbable will have to be supported with very strong evidence if it is to be made credible. Indeed, he recognizes that ECREE expresses a “healthy and normal skepticism” given the prevalence of humbug and con men. ECREE really is a corollary of what W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian call [epistemological] “conservatism” in their wonderful pocket guide to rationality, The Web of Belief. That is, in the absence of strong countervailing reasons, we should accept the hypothesis that requires the smallest sacrifice of our previously established beliefs. Quine and Ullian comment:
Conservatism is rather effortless on the whole, having inertia in its favor. But it is sound strategy too, since at each step it sacrifices as little as possible of the evidential support, whatever that may have been, that our overall system of beliefs has hitherto been enjoying (p. 67).
So, if acceptance of a hypothesis would require us to sacrifice some of our most deeply grounded prior beliefs, we will rightly demand extraordinary evidence for that hypothesis.
The CARM author recognizes that there will inevitably be a degree of subjectivity in deciding on how extraordinary a claim is. Different communities and individuals will have different sets of prior beliefs, and the degree of extraordinariness of a claim will vary depending upon which set of beliefs we are taking as our priors. Thus, theists hold that there is a God who is capable of performing miracles, and, further, might on various historical occasions have strong motivation to bring about such occurrences. Thus, a miracle report might not meet with an exceptional degree of skepticism from such a theist. However, atheists, with their naturalistic presuppositions, will—naturally and rightly—regard the report of a physically impossible event with very deep initial skepticism, and will therefore demand a great deal more evidence.
So far the CARM author has said nothing that any atheist need find objectionable. The author complains, however, that when he asks atheists to specify what would count as adequate extraordinary evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, he generally gets “nothing sensible.” For instance, the atheist might say that a film of the event would be good evidence. However, our author objects:
Extraordinary evidence would be a film, but we know that this extraordinary evidence is not reasonable since there was no film in Jesus’ time. Therefore, can the requirement that extraordinary claims (Christ’s resurrection) require extraordinary evidence apply to Jesus’ resurrection? It would seem not. Since Jesus’ resurrection is alleged to be a historical event, then it seems logical that normal historical evidence and normal historical examination of that evidence would be all we could offer. The resurrection is supposed to be an event of history and since it claims historical validity, then typical criteria for examining historical claims should be applied.
However, there is nothing obviously unreasonable about the atheist’s demand for a film of the resurrection. The atheist’s claim may be precisely that the “normal historical evidence and normal historical examination of that evidence” are inadequate to support such a claim. That is, the resurrection of Jesus would be (for him) such an extraordinary event that the ordinary sorts of historical evidence—testimony, inference to the best explanation, etc.—would be insufficient. What would convince him, the atheist continues, would be if, contrary to fact, there had been and adequate video recording (and, presumably, proper assurances that the film was not faked). That in fact there were no such devices in Jesus’ time is not a problem for the atheist. The author’s insistence that only “normal historical evidence” may be demanded merely begs the question against the atheist. Unless the author has an argument that the atheist sets his priors for the resurrection unreasonably low—and no such argument is offered—there is no reason to object to the atheist’s rejection of “normal historical evidence” as sufficient to establish the resurrection of Jesus.
The CARM author next performs a resurrection of his own: He brings back that hoary apologetic chestnut that we do not doubt the reports of extraordinary events done by Napoleon or Alexander, so why, other than slipping in a double standard, would we not accept the historical evidence about Jesus:
We cannot, for example, prove that Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) ever lived by observing him. But, we have ancient writings from eyewitnesses concerning his existence. Skeptics readily believe in Alexander the Great without involving the scientific method and without requiring “extraordinary evidence” yet they will require it of Jesus’ existence.
Alexander did a very extraordinary thing. He conquered most of the known world. Why do atheists accept the testimony about Alexander’s extraordinary doings but not Jesus’? Our author concludes:
…people will not want what Christ said to be true and will sometimes desperately try to hold onto their presuppositions; hence, the claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
In other words, the real reason behind the atheists’ demand for extraordinary evidence is that they do not want the Christian story to be true, so they insulate their beliefs by setting the evidential bar unreasonably high. So, really, atheists are just being unreasonable. Hmmm. I must have misheard what Jesus said. He must have said this: “Love thy neighbor, unless thy neighbor disagreeth with you. Then shouldst thou call him names and cast aspersions on his character.”
Do atheists apply a double standard, believing stories about Napoleon and Alexander, while rejecting the same kind of evidence for Jesus? Of course not. First, the contemporary, eyewitness documentation of the careers and accomplishments of Napoleon and Alexander are vastly—vastly—greater than anything we have for Jesus. Napoleon and Alexander’s actions were on a massive scale and were known to millions and millions of people. They were the most famous people of their day. Their actions changed the political and social conditions of whole continents. How many first-person, eyewitness, contemporaneous accounts do we have of the career of Jesus? None. The Josephus passages are notorious forgeries. The Gospels are highly redacted, rewritten, multiply revised propaganda literature (they admit that they were written “so that you might believe”) written forty or more years after the events, and based on second or third hand oral testimony.
Second, what miracles do atheists accept relating to Napoleon and Alexander? They were certainly two amazing individuals that accomplished some extraordinary things. How did they do it? They were military geniuses who enjoyed the support of first-rate generals and who led superbly trained armies of the deadliest warriors of the day. There is no record that I am aware of, certainly none generally accepted by historians, that they called down angels to fight for them or parted the waters of oceans so that they could make a strategic retreat. In short, I, and all other atheists of my knowledge, do not accept that Napoleon and Alexander performed physically impossible, miraculous feats. The resurrection of Jesus is, paradigmatically, a physically impossible event, not just an extraordinary one. So, there is absolutely nothing objectionable about placing a higher burden of proof on those claiming the physical resurrection of Jesus than we place on ancient historians who claim that Alexander won the battle of Gaugamela. The CARM article therefore badly misfires in its criticism of atheists’ use of ECREE.