Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

Written by Jonathon Van Maren, Justin Wishart on Thursday, 19 April 2012.


Your argument was just destroyedOne of the favorite atheist “rebuttals” during arguments concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,and  among other issues of historicity confirming Christian record, is the flippant statement that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is generally followed by a triumphant look on the part of the atheist, who is quite positive that his or her extensive reading of the Wiki-Quotes of Christopher Hitchens handily trump any examination of historiography or philosophical consistency.

But let's take a closer look at that statement. Does the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” actually hold true, or for that matter, really mean anything?

That statement can be broken up into three sections, which should be examined individually before examined in conjunction with each other:

1. Extraordinary Claims
2. Requires
3. Extraordinary Evidence

Let's first unpackage the beginning of the sentence. When, for example, Christians give the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ or for His miracles, atheists call this an extraordinary claim. A “claim,” of course, could be defined as a proposition of some sort. But what is extraordinary? Which claims are defined as extraordinary, which claims are mundane, and which claims are, let's say, completely extraordinary? Is there some sort of scale that grades claims on how extraordinary they are? An objective ranking from one to ten?

This even applies on a very basic cultural level. Let us give you a very basic example:

EG. “Buddhist and Hindu belief systems formed in India and Tibet teach that the body is governed by many chakras, or energy centres. There are seven major chakras: six are aligned in an ascending column from the base of the spine to the tip of the head and one hovers outside the body, between the genitals and the knees.

Anne Rooney, The Story of Medicine, Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2011, pg, 15

To people who have grown up in Western culture, this would be a more extraordinary claim. People living in India might not find it so extraordinary. This makes the concepts of extraordinary completely subjective. How can an objective value be placed upon a word such as extraordinary? The idea that certain claims, such as the resurrection of Jesus or biblical miracles in general are extraordinary, is completely the subjective opinion of the person stating this. We could point out that for over a millenia it would be the atheist‘s denial of Jesus‘ life as described in the Gospels which would be an extraordinary claim. This irony just goes to further prove the point that calling a claim extraordinary, while a clever rhetorical device, is essentially meaningless.

Before examining the second point, let’s briefly unpackage the third while we’re discussing the concept of extraordinary claims.

3. Extraordinary Evidence.

In order to really see what the questioner is demanding here, both words must be examined. We`ve looked at extraordinary, and determined that it is both subjective and ambiguous. So what of “evidence?”

Evidence is a very slippery word. What does evidence mean--and who gets to decide? The idea of evidence looks very different from person to person. A Yogi’s idea of evidence might seem very different then what a scientist considers to be evidence.

For example:

There is something which speaks within us in the language of eternity, not merely in the language of transitoriness. The consciousness of the transitoriness of things is an indication of the presence of a non-transitory eternity. This is a subtle voice that speaks within us, but it gets stifled, smothered by the mud that is thrown over it and the dust that is kicked up by the activity of the senses which blinds our eyes until we cannot see what is hidden behind this profundity within our own selves. “
http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/epist/epistemology_06.html

The Yogi believes that “senses... blind our eyes until we cannot see what is hidden behind this profundity within our own selves,” whereas a scientist uses the senses to find evidence. The scientist will go through the rigours of the scientific method to find evidence and the Yogi will go through the rigors of meditation to find the “profundity within our own selves.”

Thus, even the word “evidence” itself must be clarified if it is to be deemed objective instead of subjective. The person who is making the claim must be able to demonstrate what they call evidence is actually valid evidence. A search of human philosophy will demonstrate that this is harder to do then what most people first think.[1]

The final word in this sentence is “requires.”

2. Requires.

Even if one could show that “extraordinary claims” and “extraordinary evidence” are indeed objective, which looks extremely unlikely, it is hard to see why one “requires” them to correlate to each other. What if a claim is indeed true, but there is little evidence for it? Under this approach the person would fall into error because of this completely unproven approach. He would deny the claim because of this word. At one time there was little evidence that the earth was round, so the scientific community thought the earth was flat. There was plenty of evidence for that, just look at the ocean. It looks flat. There doesn’t seem to be a necessary connection between an Extraordinary Claim and Extraordinary Evidence. Rather, it appears that this approach could lead one into error.

This entire article might seem to some a flippant response to a reasonable demand. But is the demand reasonable? From a philosophical perspective, the recent tomes being churned out by the self-labelled “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are exceptionally shallow books. Do they ask good questions? Yes. Do they bring up some good points? Absolutely. Are they in any way philosophically consistent to the point that their thesis of anti-theism can be accepted? Absolutely not. And thus, the rhetorical devices of the anti-theist crowd must be held to the same high standards they disingenuously claim to hold religion to.

The stark reality is that the witty statement “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” is one that in every sense that matters is semantically meaningless. It is actually an attempt to demand the evidence that the asker would require to believe in something without explaining why that is necessary. When the polemical anti-God, anti-Christian rhetoric of someone like Christopher Hitchens is examined, it becomes quite clear that no matter what evidence is presented, he never would have decided to believe in God’s existence because the idea itself was reprehensible to him.

And thus, this statement should be abandoned as a rhetorical device, rather then a valid argument, due to its lack of meaning and philosophical function.


[1] For example, If the atheists using this phrase would then state that only reason or only the scientific method can provide true evidence, then they must explain why reason cannot in and of itself prove that reason is rational, or that the scientific method cannot be used to demonstrate that its methods actually produce truthful results.

Comments (3)

  • William

    William

    15 November 2012 at 07:40 |
    Interesting article! Perhaps another approach: When the athiest/agnostic states “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, one could comment on how extraordinary that statement is, and demand extraordinary evidence. This will lead to eye rolling and a short back and forth before it becomes clear how subjective and meaningless the statement really is.
  • William

    William

    15 November 2012 at 07:40 |
    * and demand extraordinary evidence of its truthfulness. ( to be more clear)
  • Farmer

    Farmer

    15 November 2012 at 07:41 |
    You’ve really captured all the essentials in this subject area, haven’t you?

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