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Do Extraordinary Claims Really Require Extraordinary Evidence

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Posted by John Morgan Powell on March 6, 2001 04:26:58 UTC

There was a debate about whether Christ Resurrected from the Dead between Dan Barker (against) and Michael Horner (in favor) which took place April 2, 1996, 7 pm at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa, Maucker Union.

Knowing that Dan Barker would probably use the argument "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" instead of just "good" evidence, Michael Horner argued that this requirement was merely a veiled means to rule out miracles a priori, which is invalid.

Do you agree? The idea that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" was perhaps first emphasized by Thomas Paine and popularized by Carl Sagan and others. Is it an improper requirement?

Michael Horner:

"First of all, an a priori dismissal of miracles is illegitimate. One cannot rule out the Resurrection because of prior assumptions that miracles are impossible. If in trying to determine whether a miracle has taken place one rules out any documents containing miracles, one has merely argued in a circle. He has not done a fair investigation. He has merely assumed the conclusion he wants to prove. It amounts to this: `I do not accept the Resurrection miracle because I do not accept any miracle.' Not much of an argument. You see, as long as it is even possible that God exists, miracles are possible. What one should do then, is try to honestly answer the question: `What does the evidence suggest is the most plausible explanation for the data?'"

"And as the philosopher W. L. Craig remarks, `That miracles are possible is neutral ground between the opposing claims that miracles are necessary and miracles are impossible.' `And once one gives up the prejudice,' he says, `against miracles, it's hard to deny that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the facts.'"

. . .

"Now Dan has a principle that he applies to the Resurrection. He claims that extraordinary or outrageous events require extraordinary or outrageous evidence. But this charge makes no sense, and it creates a phantom standard that virtually nothing could meet. It's a powerful rhetorical device, but it's very misleading because it amounts to a thinly disguised assertion that miracles are impossible. What is required of an event is good evidence, not extraordinary evidence, whatever that means. Presumably, by an `extraordinary event,' the skeptic means an event that rarely happens. But then, since evidence is made up of events, extraordinary events would require other extraordinary events, that is, other events that rarely happen, which would require even other events that rarely happen to support it, which would require other events that rarely happen to support it. And you've got the concept of `extraordinary evidence' reduced to a nonsensical infinite regress."

"One atheist has used the example that they had a flat tire on the way to tonight's debate. He says we would believe what he says. But we would probably not believe him if he claimed he was abducted by aliens. According to this atheist, we would require `extraordinary evidence' to believe that. But we've seen that the concept of `extraordinary evidence' is nonsense. What we would want is just plain good evidence, because the alien abductions is an event of great import. So the skeptic has found a kernel of truth here -- events that do not have great import, like a flat tire, we will suspend the criteria of good evidence, that's true. But let's say that the flat tire ends up being an alibi that gets the person out of a murder charge. Now all of a sudden we would hold that flat-tire event to the standard of good evidence. But what's the difference? It's still the same event: a flat tire. Events rationally require good evidence, no matter what kind of events they are. But if they do not have great import or significance, we willingly suspend the requirement of good evidence."

"The upshot of all this is that if the evidence for an event such as the Resurrection is good, it should not matter that it is an extraordinary (that is, rare) event. Good evidence is sufficient to establish any event. Just because something hasn't happened often or at all should be irrelevant to the weight of evidence that it did in fact happen this time. And the evidence for the Resurrection meets this standard of good evidence."

In the debate Barker decided to argue that the evidence wasn't even "good" without forcing the requirement for "incredible" evidence.

What do you people think? Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence or is good evidence sufficient?

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