Saturday, September 09, 2017

Tails up

A cliche objection miracles, popularized by Carl Sagan, is that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". This slogan is parroted by atheists, as if it's self-evidently true. 

Ironically, the slogan is a claim in its own right. Indeed, two claims bundled into one: (i) miracles are "extraordinary"; (ii) as such, it takes "extraordinary evidence" to credit them. 

The slogan itself needs to be unpacked. The key terms need to be defined and defended. So an atheist who uses Sagan's slogan has his own burden of proof.

That said, let's approach things from another angle: Suppose a reporter tells me that he saw a table with 100 coins, and every coin was tails up. Is that extraordinary? What are the odds? Does it demand extraordinary evidence to lend credence to the report? 

That's not a question we can answer in a vacuum. Is the assumption that someone flipped every coin once, and on the first flip, each quarter came up tails?

If so, would that be extraordinary? What are the odds? 

Well, that depends. Do the 100 coins represent the entire sample? Suppose the original sample was 1000 coins, some of which flipped heads and some of which flipped tails. The coins on the table represent a select subset of that larger total. In that event, there's nothing extraordinary about 100 out of 1000 coins coming up tails on the first flip.

Suppose, though, it is the original sample. But just by looking at the coins on the table, an observer can't tell how many times each coin was flipped. Maybe someone flipped each coin until he got tails. In that event, there's nothing extraordinary about 100 coins tails up. You can't tell from just looking at the end-result what caused that particular outcome. 

Or maybe the coins were never flipped to achieve that result. Maybe someone simply laid each coin on the table, tails up. In that event, there's nothing extraordinary about 100 coins tails up.

You can't tell, from viewing the event in isolation, whether the event is "extraordinary". What might be extraordinary in the case of random coin tossing might be ordinary in the case of selected results or direct action. 

And you don't need to know in advance that an agent produced the result to take agency into consideration. Indeed, if the reported outcome is astronomically improbable, absent some additional variable to orient the outcome, that's not a reason to deny the resort unless there's no good reason to suppose an agent may have been involved. And if the outcome is not in serious doubt, then agency is the only rational explanation. 

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