This is a Humean rule of evidence which was popularized by Carl Sagan. A variant on this slogan is that “extraordinary events demand extraordinary evidence.”
It’s since been picked up by atheists generally to quash any and all reported miracles. But what does this slogan mean, and is it a sound rule of evidence?
1.What makes a claim an “extraordinary” claim? Does that simply mean the event in question is exceptional, out of the ordinary, or unusual?
But unbelievers think that many natural events are extraordinary in that weak sense. Likewise, they think that many human events or historical events are extraordinary in that weak sense. And they don’t demand extraordinary evidence (whatever that means) for such events. So they must have something stronger in mind.
2.They often appeal to the uniformity of nature. So do they define “extraordinary” in the sense that miracles don’t happen, inasmuch as that would run counter to the uniformity of nature?
But, of course, that definition begs the question. Whether miracles do or don’t happen is the very point at issue. You can’t very well presume that miracles never happen without begging the question.
Hence, reported miracles don’t have to overcome the presumption that miracles never happen. For that would assume the very thing the unbeliever must prove.
3.Perhaps, though, the unbeliever thinks the onus is on the believer. Since the believer is asserting that miracles happen, the believer assumes the burden of proof.
However, the unbeliever is asserting that miracles don’t happen, so he—in turn—shoulders a commensurate burden of proof.
4.Frequently, the uniformity of nature is underwritten by appeal to the laws of nature. Here we have a strong claim: miracles don’t happen because miracles can’t happen.
And why can’t they happen? Because that would violate the laws of nature.
Extraordinary events don’t demand extraordinary evidence as long as they’re the right kind of event—natural events, consistent with natural law. A miracle is the wrong kind of extraordinary event for ordinary evidence to suffice.
But there are several problems with this claim:
5.An unbeliever can’t very well presume that the laws of nature preclude miracles. For he’s making a very ambitious claim. A claim about the state of the world.
That’s something he needs to defend. He can’t merely stipulate that his view of the world is right. He must argue for his view of natural law. Therefore, it’s not as if reported miracles must overcome the presumption that natural law precludes their occurrence.
Even if natural law did preclude the miraculous, that, of itself, is a claim which demands a supporting argument.
6.Keep in mind that a natural “law” is just an anthropomorphic metaphor. Literally speaking, there are no “laws” of nature. That’s a figure of speech which is borrowed from human affairs and then projected onto nature.
7.Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we formulate the possibility of miracles within a natural law framework, what would be extraordinary about an event that “violated” the laws of nature?
That would only be extraordinary under the assumption that natural laws are the ultimate factors governing reality. An absolute limiting condition. They demarcate what is possible and impossible.
But, of course, the unbeliever cannot very well presume such a grandiose position. He needs to argue for it.
8.To see the problem with (7), ask yourself the following question: “Is there something extraordinary about the idea that God would do something contrary to the laws of nature?”
On the face of it, there’s nothing extraordinary about such an idea. If God is more ultimate than nature, then God is more ultimate than natural law. So God isn’t bound by nature law. Rather, the laws of nature depend on God.
On the face of it, there’s no presumption that God would never do something contrary to the laws of nature. That would only follow if the laws of nature are ultimate and autonomous.
9. Of course, at this point, the unbeliever will object to the introduction of God into the equation. After all, the unbeliever doesn’t believe in God.
But why doesn’t he believe in God? Does he take the position that God’s existence is an extraordinary claim demanding extraordinary evidence?
But why is God’s existence extraordinary? After all, many theologians argue that God is a necessary being. And if God is a necessary being, then it would be extraordinary if he didn’t exist. Indeed, his nonexistence would be impossible. So his existence is not extraordinary: rather, it’s inevitable.
10. Of course, an unbeliever will deny that God is a necessary being. But if a theologian must argue that God is a necessary being, then an atheologian must argue that God is not a necessary being. An atheist or agnostic can’t merely presume that God is not a necessary being. His own denial is a belief. A belief with its own burden of proof.
On the basis of 1-10, there’s no prima facie assumption that a reported miracle amounts to an extraordinary claim. If an unbeliever is going to classify a reported miracle as an extraordinary claim, then he must mount an argument for his category. It’s not something he’s entitled to take for granted.
He is making a claim about the state of the world. That’s not something he can merely stipulate to be the case—especially when his claim is controversial.
11.What about extraordinary evidence? What an unbeliever really means is that, practically speaking, no evidence will ever overcome the presumption against the occurrence of miracles.
But that, of itself, is a very ambitious claim. It’s an extraordinary claim to claim that, practically speaking, no evidence can ever overcome the presumption against the occurrence of miracles.
Indeed, it begs the question. It really boils down to supposition that since miracles either don’t occur or can’t occur, then there is no possible evidence for miracles. But that’s tendentious.