Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

This is the title to a chapter I'm writing for my next anthology to be called, "The Case Against Miracles." William Lane Craig asserts that the "seemingly commonsensical slogan" above, as popularized by Carl Sagan and "beloved in the free thought subculture", is "false". [Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (p. 273)]. In online videos Craig says this slogan is "demonstrably false." When it comes to accepting a highly improbable event he argues we don't need "miraculous evidence" or "lots of evidence" or even "an enormous amount of evidence."

Craig offers an often repeated nauseating analogy based in winning the lottery. He says that by showing us the winning lottery ticket a friend can convince us she overcame the staggering odds by winning it. Hence, "the evidence for the winning pick is, indeed, extraordinary", says he, even though it's not a lot of evidence, or enormous amount of evidence or miraculous evidence. [Ibid.]

But wait just a minute! Craig's analogy is plainly false on three counts. Firstly, the odds that someone will eventually win a lottery over several drawings can be calculated, and eventually someone will win it. Given that so many people have won so many lotteries it's a somewhat ordinary claim about a somewhat ordinary experience requiring only somewhat ordinary evidence. How this is analogous to an extraordinary miraculous claim about an extraordinary miraculous experience requiring an extraordinary quality of evidence for it escapes me. Odds like winning the lottery are overcome every day. To see this just read David Hand's excellent book, The Improbability Principle, with a subtitle that says it all: "Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day."

Secondarily, winning the lottery is something that doesn't bend or break or violate the natural physical world order. Winning the lottery is not analogous to an extraordinary miraculous event considered to be a physical impossibility in and of itself. So winning the lottery is not an extraordinary claim of a miracle, the type under discussion. How many virgins have given birth to baby deities? More on that in a bit.

Thirdly, the friend in Craig's scenario shows us the winning lottery ticket, so she's offering hard objective evidence for her claim, not merely her own testimony. She's not just saying she won it. She proved it beyond a reasonable doubt. David Hume, whom Craig is arguing against, was talking about believing a miracle based on testimony alone. So if a friend said she won the lottery but never offered any proof by showing us the winning ticket, or by buying a brand new Bentley, or an Oceanside house, we would not believe her testimony alone, especially if she was an acquaintance friend rather than a close friend. We would want objective evidence commensurate with the claim.

"What is crucial," Craig says, "is that the evidence be far more probable given that the event did occur than given that it did not." [Ibid.] He restates Hume's Maxim "less pejoratively" as follows: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless this testimony is of such a kind that's its falsehood would be more improbable than the fact which it endeavors to establish." [Ibid.] So Craig does get it after all, in the end. Got it! No testimony is sufficient to establish an extraordinary claim to a miracle unless this testimony is of an extraordinary kind, such that, its falsehood would be more improbable than the fact which it endeavors to establish. In other words, extraordinary claims of miracles require extraordinary evidence commensurate with that claim, which could entail strong objective evidence, lots of objective evidence, or even an enormous amount of objective evidence, not merely testimony alone. For human testimony alone is not sufficient to convince reasonable people that an extraordinary miraculous event took place. Even if a miracle did occur, other people who didn't see it are within their epistemic rights not to believe it happened without sufficient objective evidence of the extraordinary kind.

It may be possible to imagine a scenario where a huge amount of reliable testimonial evidence from an enormous number of disinterested people might convince us that an extraordinary miraculous event took place. But we never have this quality of testimonial evidence. Take for instance the extraordinary miraculous claim that a virgin gave birth to Jesus, presumably the 2nd person of the trinity. There's no objective evidence to corroborate it. None. Let that sink in. We have no first-hand testimonial evidence for it either, except perhaps from two people, Mary and Joseph, whose stories are told by someone else. We never get to cross-examine them along with the people who knew them, and they may have a very good reason for lying (pregnancy out of wedlock?). Of course, that's if their stories weren't in fact made up to account for the hindsight belief that Jesus was the Son of God, like other sons of God in the Old Testament and ancient first century Greco-Roman world.

Now you could simply trust the anonymous gospel writer(s) who wrote this extraordinary story down, but why? How is it possible they could know that a virgin gave birth to a deity? Think about it. No reasonable investigation could take Mary and Joseph's word for it. So why should we take this story on faith, based on nothing more than second- third- fourth hand testimony--ancient pre-scientific testimony? That kind of blind faith is something adults should jettison from their mental world.

Or, another option is to claim the gospel writers had psychic abilities coming from the spirit world telling them a virgin gave birth to a deity, despite the lack of sufficient objective evidence commensurate with this extraordinary claim. These psychic abilities would come from a god on this account, but there would be no difference as to the medium, or the reliability of this claim, when compared to others who claim psychic abilities. Such a claim plus a dollar will get you a dollar.

You could finally just say you have psychic abilities yourself to know what took place in history, which tell you to trust the Gospel writers and their psychic abilities. You could say this regardless of the requirement for objective historical evidence. But then you'd be nuts just as Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, J.A. Cover and Vincent Torley are forced to admit, and are even proud of it. Remember the story of The Emperor's New Clothes? That describes them and their faith.