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What the Demand for Extraordinary Evidence Really Means

AWDRecent posts considered the challenge of many secularists that “extraordinary claims” – like the resurrection and other miracles of Jesus – require “extraordinary proof.” While this phrase makes for a catchy jingle, it demonstrates, I tried to show, an underlying bias on the part of the person who adheres to it.

At one level, an extraordinary claim is simply one that is so out of the ordinary that the likelihood it actually occurred appears quite low. Winning the lottery, for example, would be difficult to believe, considering the one in a several million odds against bagging the big prize. But if you held the winning numbers in your hand, despite the quite ordinary nature of your proof, I have no doubt that you would expect this ordinary evidence to be accepted. Imagine your shock if you were to hear the lottery official demand something more “extraordinary” to support your claim. You would suspect a scam, and you would probably be right.

There are other “claims” that defy intuition and common experience. In the field of criminal law, it is exceedingly unlikely to find a mother who would torture and murder her own child. Common experience and a basic awareness of maternal instincts lead most to conclude that mothers simply don’t engage in this type of behavior. Yet when an extraordinarily evil act such as this does occur, juries do not – or at least should not – expect some supernatural type of proof before they convict. Proof is proof, and with sufficient “normal” evidence, there is simply no reason to doubt that an historical event – whether a murder, a winning lottery ticket or a resurrection – can be established as factual, not fictitious.

To these examples, the skeptic will no doubt reply that winning the lottery or killing a child – however out of the ordinary – do not involve “supernatural” acts. They can be explained, and accepted, as the result of purely natural forces. Trying to prove that Jesus died and then returned to life in a supernatural body is an event for which there is no “natural” explanation. Consequently, this historical “event” is not simply unlikely – i.e. having an extremely low probability like the probability of winning the lottery – it is impossible. It didn’t occur, they will contend, not because a person doubts the witness’ accounts or credibility, but because it was not possible for it to occur. And impossible things simply don’t happen. This is really what the skeptic is saying, however obscurely he addresses the issue.

Getting the skeptic to see this underlying presupposition may be the first step in getting him to see this his doubt is not logically compelled. Here’s why. The syllogism underlying the above goes something like this:

  1.  Events which are impossible do not occur.
    2. Supernatural events are by definition impossible.
    3. Therefore, supernatural events do not occur.

Premise 1 is of course true, by definition. However, premise 2 is not. Events that do not conform to natural laws can occur. They may occur infrequently, but neither “definitionally” nor otherwise are they “not possible.” To conclude that a particular event is not possible, one would have to have total knowledge of both the laws and the full set things which are possible and not possible. A supernatural event is simply an event which cannot be adequately explained naturalistically; in other words, an event for which currently no adequate scientific explanation can be offered.

Let’s take some examples. If modern scientists could go back in time and demonstrate atomic power to, say, a 17th century scientist, the viewer would no doubt believe that a “miracle” had occurred. There was, as yet, no adequate explanation available as to how something microscopic could contain such vast amounts of energy. But this primitive scientist would not need “extraordinary” evidence to believe that the demonstration had occurred. He would need the same kind of evidence that led the modern scientists to make their discovery.

If they could go back still further to the appearance of the first human brain, they would be witnesses to something quite extraordinary; they would view the transformation of something purely physical – a mass of cells and neurons – into a cohesive functioning brain capable of abstract thought. Would they not rightly conclude that they had witnessed a “miracle?” Even if one believed evolution to be the driving force, the first glimmer of intelligence and self-awareness, the first recognition of math or morality or beauty, would this magical transformation from animal to enlightened being be anything less than miraculous? No natural law can explain how inert material goes from “dead” to “living” to “thinking and feeling.”

And if these scientists could travel yet farther back to the time of the singularity from which this universe somehow emerged, would they insist that natural laws could explain how nothing became something consisting of 10 or more dimensions which then became something with the familiar 4 dimensions?

By any other name, are these events any less miraculous? Any easier to explain?

In the end, a being capable of creating a universe and a human mind – as just two of many examples – is certainly capable of reanimating a human body. This would seem child’s play by contrast to the miracles of nature around us.

Yes, a resurrection event is extremely unlikely. But so too was the creation of the universe, which also happened only once. So too was the appearance of man with his unique capacities to think and to reason and to love. Adequate explanations are lacking for these events, despite the efforts of scientists to make sense of them.
Posted by Al Serrato

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