Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?

Alexander and Aristotle- WikiMedia Commons

Define extraordinary- is winning the lottery ever the best explanation?

  1. When winning the lottery is the best explanation
  2. Background information
  3. Internal consistency- cutting the branch you’re sitting on

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In 1979, astronomer Carl Sagan claimed “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Subsequently, sceptics of Christianity have used this time and time again to suggest it is irrational to think Jesus rose from the dead for that would be an extraordinary event for which we supposedly lack extraordinary evidence.

As astrobiologist and geoscientist at the University of Edinburgh, Sean McMahon, argues in Carl Sagan was wrong: ordinary evidence is enough, “True scepticism aims to follow the evidence as diligently as possible, not simply to exclude radical or outlandish conclusions in advance.” In other words, don’t argue in a circle. Don’t assume a conclusion before looking at the relevant facts.

How do you define extraordinary?

A major issue when it comes to this topic is sceptics often fail to define what an extraordinary event or extraordinary evidence is and fail to apply these standards to their own view of life and the universe. A 2011 paper by Tressoldi outlined this, the measures of “extraordinary evidence” are completely reliant on subjective evaluation and the acceptance of “extraordinary claims.”

Carl Sagan- WikiMedia Commons

Deming argued in an article published in Philosophia, how context is very important in making claims on the extraordinary. For example, billions and billions of times in human history rocks have been thrown into the air and fallen to the ground. Does this mean it is rational the first time someone sees an aeroplane in the air they should expect it to fall to the ground as the aeroplane, like the rock, is a flying object and rocks always fall to the ground?

Below I outline 3 key considerations on this topic:

  1. When winning the lottery is the best explanation

Winning the lottery is an extremely improbable event. Let’s say you win a 1 in 200 million jackpot. The evidence you need to show you probably won is very similar to the evidence to show you didn’t- a ticket in front of you which matches the numbers shown on the live stream revealing the jackpot winner versus a ticket which does not match the numbers shown on the live stream.

Do you need the other 199,999,999 people who lost the lottery to confirm with you they did not win the lottery for you to be convinced? After all, you’d need close to 200 million times the amount of evidence to support this extraordinary event.

Van Gogh- Lottery Office

No. You simply need the best explanation. The best explanation if your ticket matches the live stream is that you won. In our guide to the resurrection, we argued whether you take a minimal facts, core facts or maximalist approach to the resurrection- the resurrection of Jesus is the only explanation able to explain all the relevant facts. Accepting an explanation which does not explain the relevant facts is not a plausible position to take. This hypothesis is plausible if God exists and Jesus claimed to be divine which we argue for elsewhere.

Did Jesus rise from the dead? Your comprehensive 2023 Guide

2. Background information

Flying objects fall to the ground seconds after going into the air. How do I know this? I’ve thrown countless rocks into the air and seen many rocks thrown around. It got me in trouble many times as a kid. Aeroplanes are also a flying object, therefore, aeroplanes fall to the ground seconds after going into the air. Until you start to distinguish between objects..

If we go back through time with minimal background information, the chance of randomly finding the exact fraction of a moment of time where your great great grandfather entered the world from his mother’s womb is practically zero. It just happened once in history and was never repeated so maybe it was extraordinary or shouldn’t be taken seriously. Do we then conclude that he did not exist because one fraction of time out of the countless fractions of time since the earth began is practically zero and a virtually statistically impossible event?

Why not? Because of background information- you exist so you must have ancestors, you know people that know he existed, being your great great grandfather limits him to certain time intervals etc.

The scientist- WikiMedia Commons

Many people compare the resurrection of Jesus to the idea of some ordinary human mysteriously rising from the dead. However, this fails to consider relevant background information. If you take for example the following (a cumulative case is needed which relates to all these points, you can’t treat these points as stand alone especially the martyrdom point):

  • God exists and the hypothesis is Jesus was raised supernaturally
  • Jesus claimed to be divine (eg. Son of Man riding on the clouds/ blasphemy charge reference in Mark 14:60–64 accepted by Jesus Seminar as authentic)
  • Christianity spread through early Christians/ people who lived with Jesus courageously sharing their faith and being prepared to die for it
  • Jesus is the most influential figure in world history
  • Jesus’ followers believe he fulfilled Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah written centuries before him

Pontius Pilate- Wikipedia

If you accept the above background information it becomes quite clear that comparing Jesus’ death to the death of an ordinary human is comparing apples with oranges. Humans cannot naturally rise from the dead. No one is denying that. Making that claim and applying it to Jesus is ignoring crucial background information.

3. Internal consistency- cutting the branch you’re sitting on

Under a materialist worldview, we are just matter, movements and modifications. For the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” to be true it would need to be more than physical text on a page. It would need to be true- immaterial, transcending location and time — universally true whether you are driven by unguided local chemical processes in a body in Botswana, Japan or Sweden.

Yet if all that exists is matter/ movements/ modifications, immaterial and universal truths cannot exist for they are immaterial. Hence, the statement extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence cannot be true under a materialist position. More here.

WikiMedia Commons

Whether you are or are not a materialist, ask how many seemingly extraordinary things do you believe in that you have no extraordinary evidence for? What if someone considers the following events extraordinary?

  • The universe popping into being from nothing
  • Living in a finely tuned universe as a result on unguided processes with no intent or purpose
  • Conscious beings coming ultimately from unconscious objects that have no intent
  • Immaterial logical, mathematical and moral truths arising purely from unguided material processes
  • Christianity arising from the disciples stealing Jesus’ body or from mass hallucinations which do not adequately explain the relevant facts concerning Jesus and his followers and go against scientific knowledge of hallucinations?

A lowly carpenter in Palestine who made big claims about himself being divine. He died at the hands of the Romans. His tomb was found empty. His followers claimed he appeared to them and died for their belief in him. Other followers joined in spreading Christianity despite intense persecution. Christianity became the biggest religion in the world. Was this an extraordinary event? What was behind all this? The stakes are too big and Christ’s influence too far reaching to be ignored.

Miracles can’t happen no matter what? Read this.

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Did Jesus rise from the dead? Your comprehensive 2023 Guide

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Frequently Avoided Questions: How did we get the Bible? A crash course

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