Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The onus of miracles

I’ve discussed this issue on more than one occasion, but I want to revisit it. There is a Humean standard of evidence, popularized by Carl Sagan, according to which extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.

That’s a catchy slogan. Many unbelievers find it compelling. Even self-evident.

But what does the slogan amount to, and is it sound?

1.The superficial appeal of the slogan lies in its compact symmetry. The principle seems to be that like requires like. Yet, at a general level, it’s hard to take that principle seriously. Suppose we said it takes a cow to eat a cow? Would that be compelling?

2.What does it mean to say that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence?

i) Does it mean the evidence for an extraordinary claim must be the same kind of thing as the event it attests? Supernatural claims demand supernatural evidence? Paranormal claims demand paranormal evidence? Where both evidence and event belong to the same class or category of thing? Is that what this rule of evidence amounts to? The nature of the evidence must correspond to the nature of the event?

Yet that seems to be viciously regressive. After all, the objection to miracles (to take a specific example) is that miracles are inherently implausible. And that is why we need a special kind of evidence to overcome the presumption of their nonoccurrence.

But if the sceptic is demanding the same kind of evidence, if a miraculous report demands miraculous evidence, then the evidence would suffer from the same (alleged) implausibility as the event it attests.

If you say a miraculous event is implausible because it’s miraculous, then miraculous evidence for a miraculous event would be equally implausible.

Yet the slogan seems to concede that a miracle is credible as long as you can furnish the right kind of evidence. On the fact of it, the slogan doesn’t say that no quality or quantity evidence would ever count as probative evidence for an extraordinary claim.

ii) And if, in fact, this is what the slogan really amounts to, then is that a sound standard of evidence? How is the sceptic in any position to rule out the possibility of a miracle? Isn’t his own worldview based on a preponderance of the evidence? If so, then his worldview must make allowance for counterevidence. The evidentiary standard cuts both ways. If he can’t make allowance for any possible evidence to the contrary, then is worldview isn’t based on the state of the evidence.

iii) But what is the alternative? If it doesn’t mean that an extraordinary claim requires the same kind of evidence to attest the event, then it would require a different kind of evidence. But, by definition, a different kind of evidence would be ordinary evidence.

3.It’s also ambiguous to say an extraordinary claim demands extraordinary evidence. This can mean either of two things:

a) It requires extraordinary evidence to attest the occurrence of an extraordinary event.

b) It requires extraordinary evidence to attest the extraordinary nature of the event in question.

i) But (a) seems circular. Unless you can already recognize the extraordinary (e.g. miraculous, supernatural, paranormal) nature of a reported event, why would you demand special evidence to attest that claim? You would only demand extraordinary evidence if you already classified the event in question as an extraordinary event.

For unless the event already fell within your preconception of an extraordinary event, then ordinary evidence would suffice to attest its occurrence.

ii) So that leaves us with (b). But the problem with that interpretation is that sceptics don’t think you need extraordinary evidence to identify a miracle (to take one example) as an extraordinary event.

To the contrary, sceptics routinely reject extraordinary claims of this sort (e.g. miraculous, supernatural, paranormal) because they have a preconception of what kinds of events are ordinary, and what kinds of events are extraordinary. They accept or reject the credibility of a reported event based on their preexisting classification scheme of what is actual, possible, impossible, probable, and improbable.

For them, it goes like this:

i-b) Miracles are inherently implausible.

ii-b) The reported event falls within the stereotypical domain of a miraculous event.

iii-b) Hence, the reported event is inherently implausible.

iv-b) Hence, it requires extraordinary evidence to overcome the presumption of its nonoccurrence.

But, of course, the major premise (i-b) simply begs the question.


  1. Great entry on this issue!

    I see this statement as having two general meanings.

    "Extraordinary Evidence" could mean:
    (A) Large quantities of evidence
    (B) A particular evidence so strong as to be undeniable

    But as for (A), at what point would the quantity be enough? That idea seems far too subjective. And if they were given 500,000 evidences which were all of a relatively insignificant nature, I doubt that would be enough. So really that brings us to (B).

    Concerning (B), again, it's too subjective; I mean, is there really any evidence that can be undeniable? Honestly, even if God appeared to a skeptic and said "I am God and Jesus is my son - now become a Christian" they'd probably think it a hallucination. They'd respond like Scrooge does when Marley appears to him - "I must've eaten some bad cheese!"

    Ultimately, it comes back to how Ehrman (wrongly in my opinion) defines miracles. But when you take that definition, there's no hope of ever giving the right kind of or enough of any kind of evidence. As you point out, the whole idea revolves around an unspoken and faulty premise.

    Incidentally, I think this is what Jesus was trying to point out through Luke 16:31.

  2. What does the reliability of scripture have to do with the question at hand - whether or not it is reasonable to say "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"? I'm not saying you shouldn't ask whether scripture is reliable. Obviously that is a big factor in deciding the truth of Christian claims. But bringing it up in this context seems like a rather hefty "Ad Duckius" on your part.

  3. for one Scripture is centuries old

    Does this age problem apply to all documents, then? I mean, it must right? Otherwise that would be special pleading, and I'm sure no skeptic would do that! So, do most skeptics believe that as a newspaper ages, it becomes less and less reliable? A report accurate when it was written in 1809 was a bit dubious by 1859, and rather suspect by 1909, and really quite inaccurate by 1959, and in fact is now basically wrong? After all, it is centuries old.


    An assertion searching vainly for an argument. HELLLOOOOO? Hellloooo hellooo helloo helo...

    unreliable as objective knowledge (you wouldn't consult it for help with your children's chemistry homework)

    Are you claiming that only scientific knowledge is "objective"? As opposed to what you learn in histories, biographies, testimonials, reports and the like? Weird. So if any text doesn't contain precise scientific information, it's "unreliable"? Then I probably shouldn't rely on your comment here to say anything reliable, huh? Wait, that's self-affirming, not self-refuting. What have I done wrong?!

    and in some cases bizarre

    So's your face... Am I to take it that you treat "bizarreness" as a criterion of truth? Are you high? How are you going to help your kids with their quantum mechanics homework now? "Okay lil Johnny, let's have a look ere...a photon can be in two places at once...waitaminute! This is bizarre! This is wrong, little Johnny! Wrong!"

  4. Perezoso,

    Mmmm,yes indeed. HE HE HE HE HE

  5. Perezoso said:
    Tell that to Jefferson and Co

    That would take a miracle.


    “Rather clever way to duck the issue (the Ad Duckius?) The question isn't merely ‘cough up the evidence,’ but the reliability of the text itself: for one Scripture is centuries old, inconsistent, unreliable as objective knowledge (you wouldn't consult it for help with your children's chemistry homework).”

    And I wouldn’t consult Hume or Russell for help with my children’s chemistry homework, either. Does that mean the writings of old atheist writers are inherently inconsistence and unreliable as objective knowledge?

    “And in some cases bizarre (dare we need quote a few passages from the Book of Revelation, the calvinists' fave?).”

    What makes you think the Book of Revelation is a favorite among Calvinists? Historically, Romans has been a favorite of Calvinists while Revelation has been a favorite of Fundamentalists.

    “And it's not only Hume who took issue with miracles (Hume the theist's favorite strawman, or Moriarty-meme--oh all skeptics are.......akin to the sinister Lord Hume, nudge nudge), or ueber-nerd Sagan.”

    It’s a strawman to use Hume as my foil? Why does The Secular Web have a section on Hume if Hume is such a poor representative of atheism?

    “But Jefferson, who questioned the reports of miracles, and considered a great deal of the New Testament ‘the ravings of a madman,’ though acknowledged.”

    Citing Jefferson’s opinion is not an argument.

    “Better Jefferson and Madison than Rev. Hagee, or Rev. Wright.”

    Hagee and Wright are hardly on a par. And if you’re going to lump them together, then we might as well lump Graham Oppy and Madalyn Murray O'Hair together.

    “Or other biblethumpers and koranthumpers.”

    Since I’m not a Muslim, the reference to Muslims is irrelevant.

    “Indeed, one central factor leading to the American Rev. was the rejection of theocrats who insisted on the infallibility of Screepture.”

    Many Presbyterians supported the American Revolution.

    “Tell that to Jefferson and Co, not to say Hume, Spinoza, Sagan, et al. Scripture is inconsistent.”

    Tell that to Blomberg and Co, not to say Archer, Block, Stein, Yamauchi, Carson, Currid, E. J. Young, et al.

    “(I'm too busy to prove that to you now, but a close reading of the Gospels will reveal that immediately. Matthew's story is not Mark's or Luke's).”

    You have a bad habit of imputing your own ignorance to your opponents. It’s not as if conservative Christian s are unacquainted with all the hackneyed objections to inerrancy.

    “For that matter, why limit yourself? why not address ALL miraculous claims--the bizarre Fatima thing. Levitating buddhas; Loch ness Monster. Ghosts, etc. Chupacabras. Our Lady of the Chupie!”

    And why don’t you address all non-miraculous claims?

    You have a dumb habit of stringing together a series of unrelated tidbits as if they add up to something. They don’t.

    “Why not say the virgin of Guadalupe? or maybe her.....tears, etc…why a few visions of Maria, or the admittedly odd Fatima event, or bleeding statues…Indeed a God who only affords a few strange miracles to Mother Theresas.”

    Maybe you’re just too dimwitted to notice, but this is not a Catholic blog. Attempting to discredit Catholic miracles doesn’t make a dent in the faith of any contributor to this blog. It’s a Protestant blog, dufus!

    You come across as some sort of Latino Catholic apostate who is reacting to his Catholic upbringing. So you drag all that baggage around wherever you go. Here’s an idea for you: if you’re going to attack Catholicism, trying doing that at a Catholic blog like Dave Armstrong’s.

    “INSTEAD of like Jeezuss wiping out a panzer division (or red army division, maoist division, etc).”

    You’re suggesting that God ought to kill all the atheists? Perhaps you’d like to get to the front of the line to facilitate the process.

    “And denies them in many situations when He was definitely needed, would be either some amoral King-God.”

    So God is amoral unless he performs a miracle for everyone in need? Should he have lent more assistance to the S.S. during the waning weeks of the WWII? After all, the Gestapo could have used a miracle to turn the tide.


    “Instead of the usual ad hominem (aren't you supposed to turn the other cheeek, brrutthr?)”

    Why don’t you try learning what the passage actually means in context?

    “Perhaps deal with Keller's point re miracles (actually close to JL Mackie's points--however trite to some theists, still rather relevant).”

    There’s nothing for me to deal with since you failed to produce an actual argument. Name-dropping is not an argument.

    “Just in terms of theological tactics, the Miracle-gambit seems a poor move--not to say vaguely sinister, like those Opus Dei statues of Maria bleeding. That time o' the month!”

    Since this is a Protestant blog, and Protestants have no cult of the saints or reliquaries, you continue to bark up the wrong tree. If you’re going to attack Catholic miracles, try barking up a Catholic tree for a change.

  8. Perezoso said:

    Instead of the usual ad hominem (aren't you supposed to turn the other cheeek, brrutthr?)

    Which assumes you're a genuine "brother."

    Not to mention you've got quite the double standard. It's not as if you're ad hominem free.

    perhaps deal with Keller's point re miracles (actually close to JL Mackie's points--however trite to some theists, still rather relevant).

    Do you remember what the point of Steve's post was?

    Water into wine! Whoa. Where were miracles during WWI, WWII--even say a conservative miracle--stopping (or preventing) a Major Zhukov? Nada.

    Single-cell organisms to bipedal primates! Whoa. Where was the ordinary during WWI, WWII -- even say a Communist ordinary event -- stopping (or preventing) an Adolf Hitler from breaking the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and invading the USSR? Nada.

  9. Perezoso said:

    Keller's point is spot on regarding the "onus of miracles." You're doing the ad Duckius again.

    And here I thought I was trying to prevent you from getting yourself ad Stuckus, thereby saving you from making an even bigger ad Muckus out of your whole ad Ruckus. Oh well.

    For that matter, the brutality of WWI and WII (not even considering the combatants, but only deaths of civilians and innocents, children) rather sufficient reasons for questioning God's putative justice, and indeed His existence. Whoa, Logical problem of evil, 24/7.

    Were He said to exist, He could have chosen a reality lacking a Stalin, AND Hitler, Pol Pot and Pat Robertson, or at least performed some miraculous acts preventing the carnage. He didn't: or rather there's no "He", except perhaps a "credo que absurdum" (unless perhaps you consider Hitler and Stalin signs of His everlasting love and wisdom).

    So what's your argument? Is it that the existence of evil is sufficient grounds for questioning the existence of the God of the Bible? If that's your argument, then you need to make it, not simply state it. Whoa, common sense 101, 24/7.

    The nightmares of the 20th century could be said to affirm Voltaire's anti-theological views in Candide: Candide, a fortiori.

    Of course, your perpetual lack of presenting anything resembling an actual argument for your position that God doesn't exist (e.g. with regard to miracles and now the problem of evil) could be said to affirm Forrest Gump's view that "stupid is as stupid does." Hic puer est stultissimus omnium.

  10. Perezoso said:

    You're lying again--rather severe lie (the LPOE is a sound skeptical argument, as are attacks on the infallibility of scripture)--not to say indulging in the usual biblethumper wrath--Verstehen Sie das, dreck? I stick to German when it comes to oaths

    I don't have to repeat the little undergraduate prob. of evil, unlike perhaps you don't understand it (google, if you can), or the other problems with religious analogies (not valid proofs, as Kant pointed out two centuries ago). I'm not going to summarize Candide, or Hume, Jefferson, Russell, again etc.

    You're upholding extraordinary claims, without the requisite evidence (and I doubt any sunday schooler here has witnessed an authentic miracle). The 20th century itself has not added much to the miracle file, notwithstanding the bizarre hysteria of fatima and a few other things. There were no miracles when needed during WWI and WWII.

    Then given the usual heavy-handed dogma-rants, why bother with reason, or Keller's point, or LPOE, or the Founding father's criticism of miracles, or the many thinkers over the last three centuries who have pointed out the fallibility of Screepture? (including the latest severe blow to scriptural infallibility--the old earth and Darwinian theory of evolution confirmed, repeatedly, by radiocarbon dating) Nothing will suffice to disprove to you miracles. Errgo, You're the anti-rationalists.

    My, Perezoso! You're a mite bit touchy, aren't you?

    Of course, just like you keep name-dropping rather than making arguments of your own, we could likewise refer you to Christian philosophers with responses to the moral or logical problem of evil.

    Likewise, we might question whether you even have any grounds to establish things like logic, reason, and rationality from your worldview (e.g., see Plantinga's EAAN).

    But I'm not interested in these. They're so boring, you know. Been there, done that. So let's go back to the whole "Perezoso rant" thing you just exploded with in your above comment. That's far more fascinating to me.

    Okay, let's say you're right. Let's say there is no God. Why then do you seem so invested in convincing Christians that there's no God?

    What's more, why the emotional overreaction? You sound almost as if you were upset and even angry with someone that no God exists! But, given your beliefs, why be upset or angry over the non-existence of God? If no God exists, why such zeal, such fervor, to prove that you're right? Why such an emotional investment on your part in a cause which doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things?

    I find all this very interesting, to say the least!

  11. Perezoso said:

    or the many thinkers over the last three centuries who have pointed out the fallibility of Screepture? (including the latest severe blow to scriptural infallibility--the old earth and Darwinian theory of evolution confirmed, repeatedly, by radiocarbon dating

    BTW, even if either Old Earth creationism or theistic evolution were true, why do you think it'd be a "severe blow" to "scriptural infallibility"? Once again, where's the argument?

  12. Perezoso said:

    Better, tho, like maybe you agree to step in a ring and say yr little jerk off sunday school BS to my face, punk? Legit, say Marquess of Queensbury style, ped?

    LA, 405/Roscoe, any day of week, and Ill define religion for ya.


    You don't have shit, except old stupid, pre-scientific scholastic jargon, and an old boring, mostly meaningless holy book. Hobbes and others smashed it in like 1650 or so, but they don't teach that anymore, since zionists and papists took over . Plantinga should be lined up and shot like the good rat he is.

    I suspect Jefferson and Madison would agree

    And . . . there it is, folks! Witness the unraveling of Perezoso's mind (such that it is, or was).

  13. And you don't understand the Constitution.

    I was doing okay until this point, but sheesh, I gotta tell you, this really rocked me. I'm pretty shaken up right now. Has my faith been in vain?

  14. It is obvious Perezoso is a troll.

  15. Perezoso is definitely a village atheist.


    "Keller's point is spot on regarding the "onus of miracles." You're doing the ad Duckius again."

    Your constant refusal to produce an actual argument is the ad Duckius tactic in spades.

    "For that matter, the brutality of WWI and WII (not even considering the combatants, but only deaths of civilians and innocents, children) rather sufficient reasons for questioning God's putative justice, and indeed His existence. Whoa, Logical problem of evil, 24/7."

    I've addressed theodicean issues on several different occasions. Try something new for a change.

    "You're upholding extraordinary claims, without the requisite evidence."

    A tendentious assertion which completely disregards the content of my post.

    "have pointed out the fallibility of Screepture? (including the latest severe blow to scriptural infallibility--the old earth and Darwinian theory of evolution confirmed, repeatedly, by radiocarbon dating)."

    I've been over that ground on many different occasions. Try something new for a change.

    "Nothing will suffice to disprove to you miracles."

    That's exactly what you've offered by way of disproof—nothing.

    "You're also listed on like, wingnut fundamentalist watchdog sites (and as seminarians, more or less 'persons of interest'--like suspects)."

    I'm flattered that I made the cut.

    "He's said there are no convincing arguments which would justify belief in a monotheistic, omnipotent God"

    You're long on "saying" and short on "showing."

    "The court of reason would include, like, induction."

    For someone who indulges in pretentious name-dropping as a substitute for rational argument, you evince no grasp of the names you drop. As Hume pointed out long ago, secularism is unable to justify induction.

    Don't come back here unless and until you offer arguments instead of fancy names and empty assertions.