Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sagan's slogan

Recently I debated an atheist on Facebook. Here's part of the exchange:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. 

Simply parroting Sagan's slogan doesn't make it true or even meaningful. Once again, you don't get to take intellectual shortcuts.

It's funny how atheists imagine that just repeating Sagan's slogan automatically shifts the onus onto the Christian. What they fail to appreciate is that Sagan's slogan is, in itself, a claim, and therefore, when they quote the slogan, they themselves are assuming a burden of proof to defend his claim. You need to define what you mean by "extraordinary claims" and "extraordinary evidence." 

You then need to defend the assertion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The onus is on you to justify your slogan. 

What does it even mean? By what standard of comparison is the supernatural extraordinary? If we're living in a world where the supernatural exists, then in what respect is it extraordinary that the supernatural exists in a world where the supernatural exists?

Likewise, if God exists, is it extraordinary that God would make his existence manifest through miracles, or answered prayer? Is that unexpected, or is that to be expected?

The more extraordinary the claim, the more evidence is needed to back it up.

If supernature exists, then nature is contingent on supernature. Supernature is more fundamental, more ultimate than nature. So it's counterintuitive to demand that we need more evidence or extraordinary evidence for something fundamental, on which other things depend.


  1. I've always wondered what the measure for extraordinary is. That which is ordinary is subjective. Hence, that which is extraordinary is subjective as well. It would be extraordinary to see a sea of workers constructing the great pyramid, for example, but for the workers at the time it's an ordinary thing. It would be extraordinary to witness beheadings, but for some members of ISIS, it's an ordinary thing to see. How many Christians have wondered how the Hebrews in the Exodus could have witness all the extraordinary things they did and still rebel against God. Yet on some level it was all too ordinary for them.

    1. Many "ordinary" aspects of modern medicine would be "extraordinary" 500 years ago.

  2. The claim itself needs exploring rather than being asserted and smugly left there as though it ends the discussion. What might seem 'extraordinary' or 'improbable' to the atheist will not seem so to the Christian. If God exists, He could quite easily bring about miraculous or unusual events which the Christian would not deem very extraordinary in the context of their faith.

    Also, the claim 'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' is itself a claim that needs to be justified. As Robert Larmer argues in his Questions Of Miracle, we have little difficulty accepting many claims which are exceptions to a 'hitherto exceptionless regularity' on the basis of rather modest testimonial evidence:

    '[The first point] is that there is no specific difficulty in falsifying merely numerically universal propositions on the basis of testimonial evidence. Many of us will have read that researchers have recently succeeded in transferring genes from fireflies to tobacco plants, thus producing plants that glow in the dark. This is certainly an exception to a hitherto exceptionless regularity, yet we have no difficulty accepting this on the basis of quite modest testimonial evidence. Why, then, should we demand an extraordinary amount of evidence to convince us that a miracle, for example, the Resurrection, occurred? If it is suggested that the reason lies in the fact that the Resurrection implies violation of genuine laws of nature, but the glowing tobacco plant does not, the proper reply is that this is not at all evident. If, by intelligent manipulation of natural processes, human agents can produce an exception to an otherwise exceptionless regularity without violating the laws of nature, there seems no reason to think that a divine agent could not do likewise.' (pp 33-34)

    In the footnote following, Larmer notes:

    '[Fred Wilson] wants to object to my argument on the basis that (1) the idea of a supra-sensible or non-natural cause is unintelligible and that (2) even if it were intelligible, miracles would still violate the laws of nature, since God's intervention would violate the order of natural causes, that is, the regularities governing sensible occurrences.

    In the absence of any argument why the idea of a non-natural cause is unintelligible, Wilson's first objection amounts to begging the question in favour of naturalism and can be ignored. His second argument fails to recognise the relevance of the distinction I drew... between the laws of nature and the stuff of nature whose behaviour the laws describe. It also fails to recognize that the regularities of nature, are in many instances, interrupted by our intelligent manipulation of natural processes, yet we feel no compulsion to talk of the violation of the laws of nature...' (footnote 9)

  3. Here are a couple of other angles -
    Since claims related to God are posited by the atheist to be extraodinary, then their claims related to God are likewise extraordinary requiring the very extraordinary evidence they demand.

    Secondly, one could say that the God-breathed scriptures are an extraordinary evidence since the evidence comes from the extraordinary God.