Monday, August 2, 2010

Jason Engwer on Extraordinary Claims

John Loftus has edited a book that sounds really good called The Christian Delusion. Some of the contributors at Triablogue have written a somewhat formal response. There has been some very interesting counter replies which are available here, particularly what has been offered by Paul Tobin and Hector Avalos. It's worth reading.

Jason Engwer has written some material on the claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I've interacted with him on this issue before at some length, so I thought I'd address some of his bullet points.

- The term extraordinary is vague. All of us use vague terminology at times. Still, we should keep in mind that a vague word is being used that the critic can define and redefine on dubious grounds, sometimes without letting others know what he‘s doing.

I've responded to this argument before, but unfortunately I don't think I did reply to it in a thread that involved Jason. So I'll do it now.

The term "extraordinary" in the phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" does not mean the exact same thing in both instances. Another way of saying it would be "Highly unusual claims require evidence that is very good." The former use means "highly unusual." The latter use means "evidence that is very unlikely to lead to false conclusions." This phrase is kind of a catchy way of describing Bayes Theorem. Claims with a low initial plausibility require evidence that is of the kind that is unlikely to be mistaken and unlikely to come about if the claim were false. So very good evidence.

- Why are we supposed to think that the evidence for the resurrection isn't extraordinary? Something like the conversion of an enemy of Christianity after seeing the risen Christ (Paul) doesn't seem to be an ordinary thing. Likewise, the miracles that Paul apparently had the power to perform after seeing Christ, as he describes in his letters (including in contexts in which his audience was questioning him) and as Luke describes in Acts, don‘t seem ordinary.

This is where the above definitions are important. Suppose I tell you that 100 years ago a person managed to levitate and float. When you asked for evidence I said that a two headed unicorn farted out a text that made the claim. Is this the kind of evidence a skeptic would consider persuasive because it is highly unusual? Obviously this is not what the skeptic means when he says that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I think anybody that can really internalize the skeptical claim in order to evaluate it would know this.

- If we need extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, then do we also need extraordinary evidence for our extraordinary evidence? That seems to create an infinite regress.

If by extraordinary we meant that we expect the evidence to be of the sort I describe above (a claim about a two headed unicorn farting out a text), then yes, extraordinary evidence would be required to justify such an outrageous claim. But this is not what the skeptic is asking for.

- If extraordinary is being defined as supernatural, then is the claim being made that we need supernatural evidence for supernatural claims? If, instead, we define the first term extraordinary differently than the second term within the phrase ―extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, then the phrases loses the initial appeal that it has due to the parallel use of the term extraordinary. If the term is being redefined later in the phrase, then the phrase loses the force it initially seemed to have.

And as I say above, yes the terms are being defined differently. The common sense nature of the claim in my view should make the meaning of the terms obvious. It should be obvious that we are not asking for claims of two headed unicorns farting out texts in order to justify a resurrection claim. But perhaps this is not obvious to everyone.

- Or is it being said that we need highly unusual evidence for highly unusual claims? But ordinary eyesight is commonly considered sufficient to make a witness to an unusual murder credible in a court of law.....If Jesus appears to one man on a particular occasion, then we‘d expect only one witness, a witness who perceives the appearance with ordinary means, like ordinary eyesight, rather than with extraordinary means.

I would consider ordinary eyesight to be extraordinary evidence. That is, I find my own eyesight to be extremely reliable. So if James saw the risen Christ he might be rational to accept that Jesus rose. But I am not James. The evidence I have is not eyesight. Our evidence is a CLAIM that the risen Jesus was observed with eyesight. Further that claim is put forward decades after the fact by devoted, superstitious followers. Is that extraordinary? In other words, is this the kind of evidence that is extremely unlikely to be mistaken and extremely unlikely to come about if the claim was false? Absolutely not. On the other hand if we all witnessed the risen Jesus today that would change things.

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