Monday, February 21, 2011

Extraordinary disclaimers demand extraordinary evidence

Hume famously said, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”

This was summarized in Carl Sagan’s slogan that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

I’ve often criticized this argument. Now I’ll approach it from a different angle.

It doesn’t occur to Humeans that the principle cuts both ways. It only takes a single instance to establish a miracle. One will do.

By contrast, the Humean has to disclaim every single reported miracle. The Humean must take the antecedent, unfalsifiable position that each and every witness to a miracle was either a deceiver or deceived. Just one isolated exception will dash the entire argument.

So there’s no parity between these two propositions. And it’s the Humean position which comes up short.

Surely the claim that there’s a 100% failure rate in the whole of human history to reported miracles is nothing if not an utterly extraordinary claim. And that, in turn, demands extraordinary evidence.

By what possible evidence could a Humean overcome the standing presumption against his extraordinary claim? He wasn’t there. He’s in no position to examine every report. Or interview the witnesses.

Also, it’s safe to say that for every reported miracle, many similar incidents go unreported. Not every witness had occasion to write it down. Not every witness was literate.

Even if he wrote it down in a private diary, many diaries are never published. Many diaries are forever lost to the ravages of time.

If extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, then extraordinary disclaimers demand extraordinary evidence.

No comments:

Post a Comment