The Necessity of Extraordinary Evidence

14 March 2006

It is often claimed that extraordinary beliefs require extraordinary evidence. However, this claim is rarely supported, rather, it is assumed to be an obvious truth. Moreover, when addressing the existence of God or resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is rarely conjoined with the supposed criteria which must be met for rational belief (i.e., there is no identification of the kind or quantity of evidence needed). Additionally, it is almost never conjoined with an explanation of why, exactly, God’s existence or Christ’s resurrection are actually extraordinary, or, if they are, how extraordinary they are. These issues must be addressed if we are to embrace the argument from The Necessity of Extraordinary Evidence, as I will refer to it here.

Laying out the argument

Presumably, by claiming that the theist must provide extraordinary evidence for belief in God, for example, the arguer is attempting to establish, at least implicitly, some type of argument. Here is one possible formulation:

1. Belief in extraordinary events(things) requires extraordinary evidence.
2. God’s existence is an extraordinary belief.
3. Therefore, belief in God’s existence requires extraordinary evidence.

However, this in itself does not really damage the case for God’s existence. To become a full-fledged argument, it could be expanded thusly:

1. Belief in extraordinary events(things) requires extraordinary evidence.
2. God’s existence is an extraordinary belief.
3. Therefore, belief in God’s existence requires extraordinary evidence.
4. God’s existence is not corroborated by extraordinary evidence.
5. Therefore, we should not believe that God exists.

Do extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence?

It may be noticed that demands for “extraordinary evidence” are rarely substantiated with criteria for what such evidence would be, even in theory. Yet, it is crucial to come up with some sort of definition, since the claim is otherwise simply arbitrary.

However, it is difficult to imagine what sort of reasonable, objective standard could be set up for distinguishing between an “extraordinary event” and an “ordinary event.” Here I would like to offer a few ideas for reasons something may be classified as “extraordinary.”

1. If it apparently involves a logical or conceptual impossibility.
2. If it violates currently accepted laws of physics.
3. If it conflicts with our expectations based on background knowledge.

Obviously, 1 is more extraordinary than 2, and 2 more than 3. These criterion for “extraordinary” are objective, because we can actually spell out the amount of evidence that would be required to overcome them. Namely, the evidence must be sufficient to overrule the problem (1, 2, or 3) and then still persuasive to compel (or at least incline) belief in the proposition. Some examples here may be useful.

Let us imagine two different scenarios. In A, John claims to possess a basketball. In B, John claims to possess an airplane. The reason we may require more evidence for B is that according to our background knowledge, persons are more likely to possess basketballs than airplanes. Clearly though, we can conceive of the evidence that would be required to make probable John’s claim to own an airplane. The evidence must be good enough, however, to override our background knowledge that a person is unlikely to own an airplane. There are two ways that this can be accomplished. First, John may provide sufficient evidence (photographs of his plane, confirmation from several friends) that is good enough to overcome the inherent unlikelihood of John owning a plane. Secondly, if we obtain more specified background knowledge of John, say, that he is a multi-millionaire, then his claim to own an airplane is quite plausible, perhaps as plausible as John’s claim to own a basketball in A. Thus an extraordinary event of type 3 can be proved either by evidence good enough to overcome the inherent unlikelihood or by a change in the background knowledge that makes the event unlikely in the first place.

Therefore, I have provided three ways that a belief or event may be considered “extraordinary,” as well as (somewhat) objective means of overcoming the extraordinary nature of the belief or event.

Is God’s Existence Extraordinary?

With this analysis out of the way, does the belief that God exists qualify for any of the criterion?

Some have claimed that the very concept of God involves logical contradictions, or at least severe logical difficulties. However, most of these objections do not seem very convincing (see HERE). In any case, God could easily be construed as finitely powerful and intelligent, or whatever, and so therefore escape any supposed contradictions.

Does the existence of God violate the laws of physics? It is hard to see how, since He exists (or at least existed) distinct from these laws.

Finally, does the existence of God conflict with our background knowledge? This seems unlikely also, since we have no “background knowledge” of existence beyond our own physical universe. One might claim that the existence of nonbelief or evil is background knowledge which makes God’s existence unlikely, but, as I show in the linked articles, these objections are not unanswerable. Additionally, these objections only apply, if at all, to God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent, and not against the existence of God per se. The Problem of Evil and Nonbelief are issues to be considered after God’s bare existence is confirmed and address His nature, not His existence.

However, even if evil and nonbelief constitute background knowledge that counts against God’s existence, this is by no means insuperable. It may be the case that the evidence for God’s existence overrides these problems.

Is Christ’s Resurrection Extraordinary?

Surely, the resurrection of Christ from the dead would qualify as an extraordinary event. In our experience, dead men simply do not rise.

However, the Christian does not claim that Christ rose from the grave by natural means. The Christian claims that God raised Christ from the dead in order to vindicate Him and His claims. This explanation obviously hinges on the existence of God, yet, if His existence is granted, it seems like raising Christ from the dead is one of those things that God would have little trouble doing.

Thus, Christ’s resurrection surely cannot be a type 1 or 2 extraordinary event. It is not logically or conceptually impossible for a man who was once dead to be alive again. And the resurrection does not involve a “violation of currently accepted physics” because the hypothesis has nothing to do with physics- it deals with God resurrecting a man from the dead. It may be construed as a type 3, since in our experience God, if He exists, does not often raise people from the dead. However, the strength of this background knowledge is somewhat reduced due to the historical and religious context in which Christ’s resurrection took place. We may not expect God to randomly raise a man from the dead, but Jesus Christ was no ordinary man (which is admitted even by non-Christians). Christ made radical claims to be the Messiah and was consequently put to death in a shameful way. His resurrection from the dead by God thus plausibly vindicates Christ’s claims. So, in essence, the historical and religious context is a form of specified background knowledge that undermines the more general background knowledge that God usually does not raise men from the dead.

What if Extraordinary Evidence Really Is Needed?

As I showed early on in this article, the mere fact that belief in God or Christ’s resurrection require extraordinary evidence does not complete an atheological argument if there is, in fact, extraordinary evidence for the events or beliefs in question.

I am persuaded that there is extraordinary evidence for the existence of God. The Cosmological and Teleological arguments alone establish with an extremely high degree of plausibility the existence of at least some sort of Creator. So, even if extraordinary evidence is required, belief in God may remain more rational than disbelief. This is particularly the case because, as demonstrated previously, the extraordinary nature of God’s existence is, at best, an example of type 3.

As for the resurrection of Christ, I will admit that it is much harder to produce extraordinary evidence, since the event occurred over 2,000 years ago. However, I do believe that the historical resurrection of Christ is one of the most confident facts we can know about the ancient history. Thus, the evidence for Christ’s resurrection is “extraordinary” in comparison to the evidence for many other accepted facts of ancient history. So, even Christ’s resurrection may remain plausible despite the requirement of extraordinary evidence.

Conclusion

It is important to remember that God’s existence and Christ’s resurrection have been shown, I believe, to be weak type 3 events, at best. Therefore, if it is true that they require “extraordinary” evidence, then the type of evidence that they require is little more than would be required for a mundane event or belief. Nonbelievers will have to consider arguments for the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ on their own merits.






—————————————————————————————————————

  1. no no no, you’re a complete kook, “oh yeah, god exists outside the laws of physics” umm yeah right…simple point, there is NO evidence for god’s existance, save for a long book written by a load of politicians many years ago…you have no proof, just a load of philisophical bullshit and spin, designed to confuse people.x.


    jay    Sep 14, 07:26 AM    #
  2. Could you expound on the point: “I do believe that the historical resurrection of Christ is one of the most confident facts we can know about the ancient history.”?

    The resurrection of christ is documented by the writing of an oral tradition passed down about 30-40 years after the event occurred, supposedly witnessed by 4 people (MMLJ – whose facts may be borrowed from each other in the 4 gospels). There are very few sources outside of the Bible that cite Jesus at all (let alone his crucifixion). But, let me give you the benefit of the doubt. Let us say that the sources outside the Bible validate that Jesus exists and that he was crucified. Where is the evidence of his resurrection (outside of a few passage in the Bible)?


    — skeptical_agnostic    Feb 2, 09:06 AM    #
  3. Look at The Risen Jesus and Future Hope by Gary Habermas


    — anonymous    Mar 13, 11:42 AM    #
  4. Miracles, eg the resurrection, are extraordinary. It seems that you are blinding yourself with a veil of false objectivity.


    — Jeeum    Apr 15, 09:53 AM    #
  5. Just want to say, first, that I appreciate what you are doing. I love debates and logic and am hoping to get into a few myself.

    One comment, I’m bothered by your attempt at a courtroom argument rather than a logical argument.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think its very persuasive to the “choir” but your narrative when you get to Jesus presupposes a God. (Since you didn’t establish God as a fact – you simply waved away criticisms).

    Science – specifically biology and chemistry (which I presume you would add to physics in #2) – shows that a body starts to decompose after 3 days. The resurrection of Jesus WOULD, in fact, be counter to the laws of “physics” – and you must provide the extraordinary evidence for this event in ABSENSE of providing extraordinary evidence for a god. After all, the extraordinary event is the resurrection – the act of the being “god” – the effect. Not WHETHER a god could do it. you need to provide the evidence that it happened, or the proof that there is a god – AND then show that your “minimilist” god is the Xian god.

    However, if you wish to continue to use the “God did it” argument, I might add that one of your descriptions of God is that he is “above and beyond the laws of physics” AND “that god is not constrained by the laws of physics”.

    If this is the case you have a problem, logically.

    One of the laws of physics states that ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’.

    If God acted in some way in this universe, then there was an equal force affecting him. Or, if not (I have no idea how you can deny this, since you would paint yourself it a logical corner), then he is unable to affect this “world”.

    That is, you have a logical problem if you want god both removed from the universe AND acting on and/or within it.

    An Argument from Ignorance can’t help you here.

    That said, I appreciate your efforts and am impressed by your prolific writing and podcasts – something I’d like to try once I get as knowelgable of the arguments as you.

    Keep up the good work.


    daedalus    Jun 28, 06:01 PM    #
  6. There’s a slight problem with the extraordinary evidence / extraordinary belief “John has an airplane” example:

    The last situation in your argument stated that “if we did some background checking and found out that John was a multimillionaire…” While I agree with the conclusion of your argument (that would indeed make his claims of possessing an airplane more plausible), it begs the question: “How do we know that John is a multimillionaire?”

    Doing the background research shows it, sure. But that would still require extraordinary evidence.

    Similarly—the resurrection of christ, which I think most people would consider an extraordinary event (whether or not you believe in it), needs extraordinary evidence. Citing “well, he’s the son of God,” may make it more plausible, but then you beg the question “How do we know God exists?”

    Also – I would argue a burden of proof argument on God’s existence. We can’t assume that anything exists without a reasonable amount of evidence.

    And again—claims like this really need to be falsifiable if they’re expected to be taken seriously. If I claim that I can fly, but keep throwing out bizarre corner-case scenarios for why you haven’t seen evidence, my claim should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Similarly, all we have is a book and an appeal to antiquity / appeal to majority in favor of God’s existence. None of those three things prove his existence.


    Aaron    Sep 27, 10:59 AM    #
  7. I find some of your remarks here pretty disingenuous. There is an obvious criterion of extraordinariness besides the three you’ve listed.

    An extraordinary claim is one that requires either radical revisions or radical additions to our belief system. You ignore this latter source: radical additions. The existence of God isn’t extraordinary so much because it conflicts with our prior knowledge of the physical world, but because it requires us to admit into our ontology a whole new class of things completely unsusceptible to the prior methods of analysis (physics, chemistry, biology) we’ve heretofore relied upon. For example, I can tell you a complicated story about how I can set a bush on fire – it involves lots of particles, cells, nervous impulses, heat, etc. interacting in various well-understood ways. But how does God do it? Maybe there’s a similarly satisfying answer to this question beyond throwing up your arms and saying, “It’s magic!” Even so, it’s going to employ a huge array of otherworldly processes. The point isn’t that the existence of God demands an overhaul of physics, it’s that it requires a totally new physics, and that’s what makes it so incredible.

    You, on the otherhand, might as well argue for ghosts’ plausibility the same way you’re arguing for God’s. Sure, there is no conceivable physical law or mechanism that could facilitate survival in a floaty, ethereal form after death – but ghosts are simply orthogonal to physical laws! They’re composed of ectoplasm, which is an entirely different stuff than matter!

    In a similar vein, you reject the resurrection of Christ as extraordinary because, being allegedly divinely guided, it “has nothing to do with the laws of physics.” But again, the very fact that there was a physical event bearing no relation to the laws of physics is extraordinary! Given that physics has been so singularly and uniformly successful in explaining everything we observe happening in the world, can’t you intuit how astonishing it would be if it didn’t apply to a first century Judean?


    mag    Nov 23, 01:36 AM    #
  8. 2 Corinthians 5:7 – For we walk by faith, not by sight-

    Thanks for what you’re doing…


    — Casey    Feb 14, 06:14 PM    #
  9. Your argument is fairly incoherent and generally illogical.

    HERE IS AN EASIER WAY TO LOOK AT THIS.

    1) Something which is improbable from our perspective requires a large amount of evidence.

    2) From an unbiased perspective the existence inside our universe of a near-perfect being, that does not abide by the rules of the universe (as we understand them), is extremely unlikely. (Note ‘universe’ includes any other dimensions etc.)

    It is far more likely that such a being does not exist (especially when the complication of such a beings creation is considered).

    3) There is not sufficient evidence to justify believing in such an improbability.


    — Cole    Apr 29, 01:44 PM    #
  10. i would love to have a conversation/ debate with daedalus if you want to drop me an email wakefreek13@gmail.com


    Cody    Feb 17, 05:09 AM    #
  11. What utter tosh. First we start with a straw man – “Extraordinary Belief requires extraordinary evidence” No it doesn’t. You can believe what the hell you like, you don’t need evidence for it. That’s the point – it’s a belief. Evolution for example doesn’t require belief, it’s true whether you believe it or not.

    And then you go and talk absolute codswallop by pretending to be some intellectual and completely ignoring the science which you wish would prove your point.

    Idiocy on a grand scale.


    Andy    May 7, 03:09 AM    #
  12. I believe all of the evidence is there and stands up to the severest of scrutiny. First, the resurrection was documented by the followers MMLJ because that was their job as disciples. Remember, this is a time when people were being CRUCIFIED for claiming that Jesus was the Son of God. Do you think that non-believers would document these events even if they saw them with their very own eyes? It doesn’t take much evidence to prove someone rose from the dead, which was prophecy in the same Bible. If a dead man is seen and spoken with, and felt, he has been resurrected. What did these multiple disciples stand to gain from lying about the resurrection? They were facing certain torture and death, the very reason you don’t find “evidence” from everyone else. Seriously, the answers are there if you are looking for it, not to mention having faith in something you don’t fully understand or comprehend yet.

    As for God’s existence, I believe the author is saying that there is certainly a precedent for the existence of God since the creation of the universe, or even a single atom requires an extraordinary force outside the “laws” of physics, created by men, who can’t create any form of matter, trying to decide whether God exists or not. I think that the problem of God’s existence will always stem from a need to understand everything. Man has a compulsive need to understand everything, or at least hold on to the hope of complete understanding, and when there is a body of knowledge that is closed to man, they become very resentful and dismissive of anything outside the realm of their tiny brain and existence. What percentage of a man’s life compares with all of humanity? There are answers to these questions if you are looking for them, instead of headhunting holes in the puzzle where you lack the understanding. Good Article.


    Sean    Jul 31, 09:30 AM    #
  13. First, can I just say that the word “criterion” is singular. The plural form is “criteria” or “criterions”. So, you would say, “These criteria…” or “any of the criterions…”

    Secondly, as another commenter pointed out, you got the saying very, very wrong. It’s “Extraordinary CLAIMS…” not “Extraordinary beliefs…”

    Third, it doesn’t have to conflict with our ‘background knowledge’. It just has to be completely unsupported by our “background knowledge”.

    Luckily, since Christianity conflicts with our background knowledge, that needn’t be a sticking point.

    Your John examples are disingenuous. You chose two things that are, in no way, extraordinary.

    Here is an example that is actually informative. A) John tells you he owns a basketball. B) John tells you he can move basketballs with thought alone.

    A) I have seen many people in my life own basketballs. I am familiar with basketball ownership. In the vast majority of the cases, when somebody claims to own a basketball, they actually own a basketball. If John shows me his basketball, I’ll believe him.

    B) I have never witnessed a person being capable of telekinesis. I am familiar with the concept. I know that those who claim to have the ability, when tested objectively in double blind experiments, have been shown to be lying every single time. If John wants me to believe him, it will take a lot more than seeing a basketball move seemingly on its own in his presence. In fact, we would have to involve James Randi for this one.

    Same with the Christian god. There is no evidence that that particular being exists. We know humans have created dozens and dozens of fictional gods and fictional religions.

    In fact, the Christian religion has been edited and rewritten into new religions with masses of devoted followers TWICE.

    So, it isn’t just that we lack background knowledge of the Christian god existing. It’s that we so much background knowledge of people telling lies about gods existing.

    That alone makes your claim that your particular god is the only one that isn’t a lie in complete conflict with all of our background knowledge and experience.


    gwen    Nov 23, 07:46 AM    #
  14. The counters in these comments are generally fantastic. I would love to see the author address them.

    My only problem with the article is the shifting goalposts. I think you do a disservice to yourself when you write:
    “In any case, God could easily be construed as finitely powerful and intelligent, or whatever, and so therefore escape any supposed contradictions.”

    That may be true, but that’s not the god you believe in, so that’s really not an argument you can throw out, particularly in a discussion about Jesus’ resurrection. By your own logic, Jesus’ resurrection by a FINITE god would be very extraordinary to you indeed, because you don’t believe such a god exists.


    Michael    Mar 10, 02:24 PM    #
  15. Thanks everyone for the feedback, there have been some great criticisms I would like to address in a revised version of this article. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts.

    daedalus,

    It’s true that I carry on the discussion of Jesus’ resurrection with the assumption that God exists, but I point that out plainly in the text. I say “if His existence is granted.” There is no attempt to wave away criticism. I realize that God’s existence should be defended and I’ve done that elsewhere on the website. However, the point stands that IF God exists, then Jesus rising from the dead does not necessarily involve a violation of physical law.

    Concerning God’s actions in the world, I don’t agree that God would be affected by the physical universe, since He exists outside of the universe. The laws of physics you speak of are assumed to operate in a “closed” system – if there is something operating outside of the universe then it may not be constrained at all by these laws. This would be true of God and would also apply to other theoretical entities existing outside the known universe, such as other universes (if the multiverse theory is true).

    Aaron,

    I’m not sure why it would require extraordinary evidence to prove that John is a multimillionaire. It is less likely that John owns a plan than that he is a multimillionaire (there are quite a few multimillionaires, and most of them don’t own planes). The point is merely that shifting background knowledge shifts the amount of evidence required for the claim.

    gwen,

    The example with John was not meant to be disingenuous, but simply to be an illustration that allowed me to demonstrate the two separate ways you could come to rationally believe a claim. The point is that direct evidence is one avenue, but a shift in background knowledge is another.

    Your example with John moving basketballs with telekinesis is indeed more extraordinary than his owning an airplane, but the same point applies. You could come to believe this claim if either:

    a.) There was enough direct evidence for it (for example, James Randi verification)
    b.) There was a shift in background knowledge. For example, an alien race is discovered that has powers of telekineses, and are shapeshifters. Suddenly it’s much more likely that our friend John is a shapeshifted alien with cool mental powers!

    The other point of my article is that there are differing levels of extraordinary claims. The weakest type are ones that conflict with background experience (like John owning an airplane). A stronger type is one that violates currently accepted laws of physics. Your example of telekinesis would fall under this category, so of course it is more extraordinary than the claim of owning a plane.

    Mag,

    This is a good critique and I would like to say quite a bit more about this line of thought, hopefully in an updated version of this article.


    Kyle Deming    Mar 25, 01:46 AM    #
  16. “It is often claimed that extraordinary beliefs require extraordinary evidence. However, this claim is rarely supported, rather, it is assumed to be an obvious truth.”

    It’s best supported by analogy, and required by consistency. If you heard that a guy from your town had supernaturally risen from the dead, you’d require extraordinary evidence. It’s only because you’re a Christian that you don’t for the Jesus claims.

    “Does the existence of God violate the laws of physics? It is hard to see how, since He exists (or at least existed) distinct from these laws.”

    Does the existence of magical fairies that can transmutate trees into cows violate the laws of physics? It’s hard to see how, since (being magical) they exist distinct from these laws. Therefore, if anyone ever tells you that they’ve seen a fairy turn a tree into a cow and back again, you should believe them without any extraordinary evidence.

    “Surely, the resurrection of Christ from the dead would qualify as an extraordinary event. In our experience, dead men simply do not rise. However, the Christian does not claim that Christ rose from the grave by natural means.”

    And no one’s claiming that the fairies transmutated the tree by natural means. They used magic.

    “The Christian claims that God raised Christ from the dead in order to vindicate Him and His claims. This explanation obviously hinges on the existence of God, yet, if His existence is granted, it seems like raising Christ from the dead is one of those things that God would have little trouble doing.”

    The story of the tree being turned into a cow and back again obviously hinges on the existence of fairies that have the magical power of transmutation. Yet, if their existence is granted, then it seems like this is one of those things that they might have little trouble in doing.

    “I do believe that the historical resurrection of Christ is one of the most confident facts we can know about the ancient history.”

    A couple thousand years ago, a cult dedicated to magical fairies claimed that some of it’s members had once had experiences with magical fairies. This is extraordinary evidence that magical fairies exist.


    Zoetherat    Apr 27, 12:14 PM    #
  Textile Help