Man has a parrot-like propensity to be seduced by a catchy saying, hold to it, and assert it repeatedly without thinking seriously about what he is saying. He remembers before he speaks; but he doesn’t think before he speaks. And the most astonishing fact is that all too often he really does believe he has said something quite wise. Think of the pro-choicer who continually refers to a woman’s “right to choose” without finishing the sentence. Right to choose what? we are compelled to ask. Is not an incomplete sentence is indicative of an incomplete thought?
Chesterton provides an example when he critiques the popular exhortation “believe in yourself” in his classic Orthodoxy. He muses, “Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true”. In short, when we get intellectually lazy we tend to speak without thinking, relying thoughtlessly on faddish sayings.
This appears to be a human folly (not even you or I are exempt). Nonetheless, here I would like to narrow down my critique to one phrase often asserted by naturalists: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you’ve ever engaged in dialogue with a skeptic yourself (or listened to others) you have likely heard this catchy saying used in reaction to theistic claims. But it seems that it is often asserted as a brute fact without qualification, and is perhaps imposed as a trap, a vague standard intentionally placed beyond the believer’s reach.
Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Perhaps. But we can’t really know until we can make sense of what this maxim actually means.
The principle has been around for a while. It was popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan, although the idea predates him. French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace asserted something similar when he wrote, “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness”.
In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding the skeptical philosopher David Hume wrote that “a wise man.…proportions his belief to the evidence”. This quotation has been cited by skeptics in support of their belief that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but look closely at what Hume says; or better yet, look at what Hume does not say. He says a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence – and I couldn’t agree more. He does not say, however, that the wise man proportions his evidence to the belief. Hume is right: it is wise to hold beliefs that are well-supported by evidence.
What Makes A Claim Extraordinary?
The problem is the arbitrariness of the term “extraordinary”. Again, it is unreasonable for the skeptic to merely state that belief in the supernatural is extraordinary without further qualification. As always in rational discourse, defining terms is paramount.
Perhaps by “extraordinary” the skeptic means uncommon or rare? This seems reasonable. But the paradox is that rare things happen all the time. Identical twins are born, lotteries are won, atheists become Catholics, and new species of animals are discovered. But not even the most committed skeptic would deny the reality of these rare events – at least once the evidence is out. The skeptic sees the lottery winner on the news and believes without demanding access to the winner’s bank statement. The atheist sees his twins on the ultrasound monitor and believes despite not seeing his babies with his own eyes. He perceives a truth without direct observation, and yet still accepts it as trustworthy evidence.
Thus one possibility is that when evidence supports the truth of an unexpected reality, the evidence can be appropriately deemed “extraordinary” by virtue of what it proves.
But maybe the skeptic means that belief in the invisible is extraordinary, and therefore requires extraordinary evidence. Yet he does not suspend belief in fundamental particles, the existence of Darwin, the mind of his best friend, or the free will of Hitler despite the fact that they are not concretely visible to him. He believes in these things on intuition and on the testimony of others, and for him that kind of evidence is good enough to warrant faith in the invisible.
Or perhaps he just means by extraordinary what the term typically means, namely, something not ordinary. Ordinary is synonymous with “usual” or “normal”, so extraordinary would be “not the usual”. But here’s the thing: the consensus position in regard to God’s existence – or the most usual belief across humanity – in almost every (if not every) era including our own has been that God exists, not atheism (this is the first premise of the common consent argument).
If this is the case then perhaps we should flip this thing around and demand “extraordinary evidence” from the skeptics since it is they who make the extraordinary claim, or the minority claim. The atheist’s position, it seems, is not the commonly held one currently or historically.
But there is still another question to ask. What constitutes extraordinary evidence?
What Qualifies As Extraordinary Evidence?
Now here’s another scenario. Perhaps the skeptic calls a supernatural claim “extraordinary” because he believes there is no good evidence for such a thing. The ordinary claim for him is that which has good evidence to support it. But this whole viewpoint hinges on whether or not supernaturalism is, in fact, lacking evidentially – and whether there is actually better evidence for atheism. On the flip side, if there is better evidence for theism than atheism then it is theism that is the more ordinary claim.
The unbeliever is not exempt from a burden of proof, for even he is making a knowledge claim about reality: that God does not in fact exist. We wouldn’t credulously let someone off the hook when the assert that they know aliens don’t exist. Rather, we would demand qualifying evidence for such a conclusive statement instead of accepting it as self-evident.
The skeptic must therefore demonstrate the evidential basis for his skepticism and he must do it primarily with philosophical argumentation; for God is not just another “being among beings” taking up space in the empirical realm of the universe, but rather God is the sheer act of “to be” itself. For while remaining present to the physical world as Creator and Sustainer, God is transcendent of the physical world, unbound by time, space, and matter. He is like a mind: real and powerful but invisible and immeasurable to the scientists.
Thus trying to prove or disprove God’s existence by scientific evidence alone is as absurd as trying to prove or disprove Napoleon’s historical existence by geometry alone.
So I would agree that if there is good evidence for a given belief, then to claim the contrary is to make an extraordinary claim. If an unorthodox claim is asserted – that unicorns exist, for example – there would be a burden of proof to show good evidence (or what philosophers call a defeater) for the commonly held belief that unicorns don’t exist. Unlike the arguments for unicornism however the arguments for theism – and more specifically Christianity – are a force to be reckoned with (as Trent Horn demonstrates in Answering Atheism and Hard Sayings) as they draw widely and deeply from philosophy, history, and science.
The take home point can be boiled down to this: the assertion “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” requires further qualifications in order to function as an acceptable principle of reason. Merely asserting it is not enough to validate it. Furthermore, what is needed to reasonably believe any claim seems to be just good evidence; or evidence that makes a claim more reasonable to believe than its opposite.
***This article was originally published at the Catholic Answers online magazine.